Yes, with the worst out of the way, it’s time to count down the best. In a lot of ways, this year was a mixed bag. A lot of pop was very formulaic, but “pop” as a genre was much less prominent on the charts than in previous years, allowing pop artists like Lady Gaga, Kesha, and Calvin Harris to branch out in exciting new directions while non-pop artists like Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino found their way into the mainstream ear. So there was a lot of middling shit, but an above-average amount of great shit as well. Here are my personal favorites. Note: for the purposes of these lists “hit” refers to any song that made its way onto Billboard’s year-end Hot 100 or into the top 20 at any point this year.
20) MOTORSPORT – Migos, Cardi B, and Nicki Minaj
In a way, this song acted as a bookend for the year in pop rap. It acts as the first single off Migos’ upcoming Culture II, the follow-up to their January Culture album which dominated the culture for much of 2017. It features Cardi B, who made waves this year with her smash hit “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)” and became the first solo female rapper to earn a #1 single this century. Nicki Minaj had a busy year herself, including high-profile beefs, a few talked-about verses, and a top-ten hit with Yo Gotti’s “Rake It Up.” In October, these five titans came together for “MotorSport,” a surprisingly-lowkey but still undeniably catchy track featuring outstanding verses by the two female MC’s and solid work from Migos. A bit overlong, perhaps, but I don’t think there’s anything I’d take out (except maybe Quavo’s verse).
19) LOVE GALORE – SZA feat. Travis Scott
“Love Galore” is the lead single off SZA’s earth-shattering debut Ctrl, and it gave mainstream audiences the first taste of the R&B songstress’ unique vocals and penmanship with a distorted, deep-groove sex song. The marriage of styles between SZA and Travis Scott goes as wonderfully as you’d expect, with Travis’ woozy psychedelic rap juxtaposed against SZA’s syrupy pipes to create something strange, but undeniably enjoyable.
18) FRIENDS – Justin Bieber feat. BloodPop®
There’s something about that big ’80s synth sound I just can’t get enough of. On “Friends,” Justin Bieber reunites with producer BloodPop, who worked on five songs from Bieber’s last album Purpose, including the smash hit “Sorry.” You can definitely hear the “Sorry” in this track, an upbeat-yet-forlorn plea to an ex-lover punctuated by weird EDM sounds and a deep, driving groove on the verses. It’s simple, but not to the point of being cut-and-dry; it still feels real in spite of its universal “Can we still be friends?” conceit.
17) BODAK YELLOW (MONEY MOVES) – Cardi B
Not since Bobby Shmurda has an up-and-coming rapper made this much of an impression with a solo single. For the latter half of 2017, “Bodak Yellow” was inescapable. People who’d never listened to it knew half the words. There’s the famous video of an entire subway station gathering together to turn up to it. And it’s not a bad song, either. It’s simple, sure, but there’s a power in it; an infectious quality that can’t be understated. It’s a common concept (“I didn’t have money, but now I do”) handled elegantly by a rapper with a lot of potential. A lot of big singles by new rappers turn out to be flukes. I don’t think Cardi B is going anywhere.
16) MILLION REASONS – Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga’s pivot towards country was met with mixed reception. You’ll recall I rather dug the album, putting Joanne somewhere in the upper twenties on my 2016 Album of the Year list. A lot of people hated that album, most agreed it could’ve used an edit. One thing less polarizing than the album: the hit single, “Million Reasons,” which enchanted fans and critics alike by taking Gaga’s commitment to country and going all the way with it. Like “Bodak Yellow,” it’s simple: a wistful guitar-and-piano tune with pretty repetitive lyrics, but it’s Gaga’s vocal performance (one of the best of her career) that really makes the song. Of course, the simplistic folky concept does have a certain Paul Simon quality to it. It’s a perfectly timeless song, a sandbox that could be covered and transformed a million different ways. But I just need one good one to stay.
15) DESPACITO – Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee feat. Justin Bieber
Hello again, Bieber. Look, what do you want from me? Justin Bieber had like, a half dozen hit singles this year. He’s gonna have to show up on the list. You’re lucky I didn’t also throw in “Let Me Love You.” Anyway, it was a weirdly brilliant idea to throw Bieber on this track. He complements the Latin guitar surprisingly well, he gave the song the crossover appeal it needed to top the charts in the US for a billion weeks, and the way he says “despacito” is just honey on the ‘drums. Also, say what you will about Luis Fonsi, but the dude’s got hooks on hooks. In a year of hit-free hits, “Despacito” was refreshing not only for its language, but because it was an actual summer song. With how absurdly overplayed it was, it may take a few years to appreciate in quality, but I think history will be kind to “Despacito.”
14) PASSIONFRUIT – Drake
Is Drake any good? The question’s haunted me for quite some time. On the one hand, you’ll recall how “Both” made my worst list, and I put “Fake Love” and “Free Smoke” in the running as well. He’s definitely not putting very much effort into some of his music these days. More Life is a fine not-album, but there are a lot of songs on it that were pretty clearly made not out of inspiration, but out of a commercial need to put something out. On the other hand, there’s “Passionfruit.” I don’t know whether or not Drake uses ghostwriters, but assuming he doesn’t, this is probably his most impressive song to date. It’s got a brilliant, poetic structure to it; it almost feels like a St. Vincent-type art-pop song, but with a lo-fi Caribbean flair. I don’t think anyone would be doubting Drake if he put out more tracks like this.
13) FEEL IT STILL – Portugal. The Man
There’s no surer sign that the pop machine is dying than the fact that, for the better half of 2017, Portugal. The Man had a top ten hit. Yes, the indiest of indie bands finally found its way onto pop radio with “Feel It Still,” an undeniably catchy send-up to ’60s protest culture. How did these oddballs score a hit? Well, the short answer is commercials. As it’s become harder for lesser-known artists to make a living in the age of streaming, bands have started turning to advertising companies, who have been working for years to make indie rock synonymous with cars and Vitamin Water. Most heard “Feel It Still” for the first time in a commercial featuring Aaron Paul dancing on a treadmill. It picked up steam from there, thanks to its unshakable groove built around a sample of the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman,” and the rest is history.
12) ROCKABYE – Clean Bandit feat. Anne-Marie and Sean Paul
Yeah, I still love this song. I know I’ve written about four different blurbs on it already, but what can I say? It’s such a bizarre concept, handled by the most extra name in EDM, featuring conscious raps from Sean Paul. From Paul’s opening ad-libs “All the love and devotion / Calling the moms, adoration / Foundation / A special bond of creation” to the melodramatic violin outro (represented in the video by a woman in her underwear solemnly pole dancing), it’s the most bizarre EDM-pop track to find its way onto the radio this year, and I love it dearly.
11) LOCATION – Khalid
This is another song that could be described as “weird,” but less in a cornball way and more in a “this guy’s gonna be huge” way. It’s simple, layered, and completely unforgettable. Khalid’s voice is soft, weary, but unique, and works perfectly in tandem with the desperate lyrics. And the beat is unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. bubbly synths create the illusion of a somber acoustic guitar while barely-there vocal samples give the track an otherworldly feeling. This song transports you to a strange, liminal space, and it’s easily one of the most moving songs on the radio this year.
10) ATTENTION – Charlie Puth
After a couple years of sappy, schlocky, insipid piano pop, Charlie Puth finally gave the gays what we want with “Attention.” Granted, this could’ve easily been another stupid piano ballad, and it would have been only slightly less shitty than the rest. But that groove, man. Who would’ve thought funk and Charlie Puth go so well together? Hopefully Charlie’s learned his lesson now: if your song’s gonna be stupid, it at least has to be fun. “Attention” is fun.
9) I FEEL IT COMING – The Weeknd feat. Daft Punk
If I recall correctly, this song was rather high on last year’s list, but in fairness, my standards for last year’s list were ridiculous. This year, “I Feel It Coming” was actually a hit, and I’m glad too, because it’s still an amazing song. That ’70s groove is Daft Punk at their finest, and The Weeknd’s mellifluous crooning brings it to another level. It’s pure campy disco bliss.
8) 24K MAGIC – Bruno Mars
Hey, speaking of camp. An earlier version of this list had “That’s What I Like” in the top ten, but upon further consideration, I’m ready to say definitively that “24K Magic” is a better song. It’s a brilliant send-up to the entire history of R&B, and a perfect intro to Bruno Mars’ delightful 2016 album of the same name. Sure, it’s not the type of doe-eyed piano ballad that made him big, nor is it a bold new direction, but if Bruno Mars just kept remaking “Uptown Funk” in slightly different genres for the rest of his career, I would not complain.
7) BAD LIAR – Selena Gomez
I was a fool for sleeping on this song when it came out. I let the fact that Selena Gomez has literally never made a good song before get the better of me and failed to see how absolutely brilliant this track is. It’s catchy, it’s funny, it’s relatable, and above all else, it’s super fucking weird. Selena murmurs through gonzo verses over a classic Talking Heads bass line leading up to a hook that doesn’t have any right to be as catchy as it is. One can only hope we get to see more delightfully weird shit from Selena Gomez in the future.
6) HAVANA – Camila Cabello feat. Young Thug
It took the combined star power of Young Thug, Pharrell, and Starrah, but I’m finally a Camila Cabello fan. It’s not that I hated her or anything, but between her shitty collaboration with Machine Gun Kelly, her unremarkable work with Shawn Mendes, and “Crying in the Club,” which is fine, I just kinda didn’t see what she had going for her. It turned out, all she needed was to get on a Pharrell beat. I probably listened to “Havana” more than almost any other song this year. I instantly loved it. And it’s not just the Pharrell production, or Starrah’s pen, or Young Thug’s idiosyncratic warble; I love Camila on this song. I love her voice, I love the lyrics, I love how she fits with the beat. To me, this proved that Camila is more than just a bland pop star, and I’m excited to hear what she comes out with next.
5) SIGN OF THE TIMES – Harry Styles
Here’s another song I’ve already gushed to death about. We were all ready to be excited about Harry Styles, just waiting for him to come out with something worth talking about, and by god, he delivered. Once his debut album finally dropped, some folks didn’t love it, but this song’s still pretty great, right? It’s a meticulously-paced, gorgeously-produced glam rock ballad, the sort of thing that elevates the standard for a post-boy-band debut to live up to. “Cry Me a River?” Please.
4) HUMBLE. – Kendrick Lamar
With other folks’ end-of-the-year lists coming out, it’s clear that fans and critics alike just can’t get enough of Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. While I hear a lot of praise dumped on that album and think “Well, I don’t know about that,” I will say this: “HUMBLE.” is an amazing song. That dirty piano beat, the endless quotables, the sheer swagger of it all. Kendrick’s always been a pretty vulnerable, introspective artist, so to hear him come for rappers’ necks like this is really refreshing. When you’re the king, you get to gloat, and “HUMBLE.” revels in that glory to delightful returns.
3) SLIDE – Calvin Harris feat. Frank Ocean and Migos
“Slide” was one of the earliest contenders for song of the year, dropping in late February and staying true all the way through December. It’s an absolute powerhouse of a song, the type of space-age summer jam to be remembered for generations to come. Calvin Harris and Frank Ocean is a fever dream collaboration that has absolutely no business working as well as it does. Frank’s vocals are heavenly as always, Quavo and Offset put in some really solid work (this is actually the song that put me onto Offset as a rapper), and the production just might be Calvin Harris’ finest work to date. It’s almost too perfect, but it’s too much fun to ignore.
2) PRAYING – Kesha
I’ve remarked several times that this song is far too powerful to play on the radio. Whenever I hear it in the car or a cafe or my school’s dining hall, I lose 80% of my brain functionality to absorb its majesty. Ryan Lewis is the best thing to happen to pop music in a long time, and he does his magic on this track to create something baroque and beautiful without falling into cliche or inaccessibility. But of course, the star of the track is Kesha herself, who sets herself apart as one of the best pop vocalists alive in one fell swoop while baring her soul on this intense five-minute track. It feels like a song that should’ve gotten old months ago, but every time I listen to it, really listen to it, it still jerks a few tears out of me.
1) REDBONE – Childish Gambino
In a scant two years, we’re going to start discussing the best songs of the decade. Music journalists will begin the process of throwing together “decade in review” lists, picking out the most impactful, inspired, and enjoyable music of the 2010’s. And at this point, one of the strongest contenders is “Redbone.” It was an instant critical smash when it dropped late last year, and after appearing in two of the best films of the decade (Moonlight and Get Out), it creeped its way onto the pop charts. Now, looking at its impact, the countless memes it spawned, Gambino’s ethereal vocals, the inspired production, and everything else, it’s hard to argue “Redbone” isn’t one for the ages. Our kids will know “Redbone.” Musicologists in the next century will know “Redbone.” Donald Glover has been cementing his place as a pop culture icon for a few years now, but with “Redbone,” we start to see him carve his place into history.