While I’m working on more end-of-the-year lists, help yourself to some of my favorite tunes from the month of December. This list didn’t take nearly as long to narrow down (not a lot of people put out music in the last week or two of December), but I have to say I’m more satisfied with this one than the past few I’ve done. It’s easily one of the most varied lists I’ve ever done (though a couple artists show up more than once), and I was able to get it out earlier than I have in over a year. Will any of these songs be making my eventual “best songs of 2017” list? We’ll see, but they’ve made it this far, so give ’em a listen.
20) LUCKY PEOPLE – Waterparks
I was first put onto Waterparks a month or two ago when they released “Blonde,” a fun ’90s throwback pop-punk number bolstered by some impressive instrumentation and a memorable vocal performance by lead singer Awsten Knight (“Is Awsten Knight gay?” has been added to my search history; the results were inconclusive). “Lucky People” is… different. Knight himself described it as “the most happy Jason Mraz-ass song you ever saw,” and I’m inclined to agree. It’s charming at first, but it hooks you after a few listens and sets it apart from your standard “white guy with acoustic guitar” fare with a great pop hook.
19) BEN FRANKLIN’S SONG – The Decemberists
“Ben Franklin’s Song” is the first of a series called “Hamildrops,” in which Lin-Manuel Miranda plans to put out unreleased content written for Hamilton every month of 2018. Of course, that’s exciting, to hear new songs from Hamilton performed by beloved musicians. And based on Lin’s brilliant decision to give this one over to the Decemberists, the songs are definitely in capable hands. I’ll admit I’ve never been way into the Decemberists, but I’ve heard enough to know that their folky sound perfectly complements the brash, cocky Franklin represented in the lyrics. Every “Do you know who the fuck I am?” lands with impeccable timing, and it all builds to a surprising theatrical climax. It’s easy to see how this would fit in to some version of Hamilton, but framing it as a Decemberists song makes it all the better.
18) GO DUNG – Major Lazer feat. Kes
Major Lazer first came across my radar with their global smash hit “Lean On” back in 2015, and I’ve kinda been a fan ever since. They’ve really perfected their electro-dancehall fusion sound to a science, and I haven’t liked everything I’ve heard, but when they get it right, they get it right. Like “Go Dung,” their latest single featuring the soca band Kes, ostensibly from Lazer’s forthcoming album Music Is the Weapon. It starts off with a classic reggae/pop hook, then morphs into a club banger and rests itself squarely in both categories. It’s fun, simple, and catchy, but still carries the hallmarks of Diplo, Jillionaire, and Walshy Fire’s intricate production.
17) DANGER – Migos and Marshmello
In the last few days of 2017, Will Smith’s Netflix fantasy action blockbuster Bright got absolutely clowned for piss-poor attempts at social commentary and that bland film of David Ayer grime. Like Ayer’s previous work, Suicide Squad, it’s maybe not as bad as people make it out to be, but definitely pretty fucking bad. Also like Suicide Squad, it’s actually got a really solid soundtrack. I wasn’t expecting too much from a collaboration between Migos and Marshmello, but I was pleasantly surprised by this one. Marshmello’s sometimes-dated EDM-pop production lends itself well to Quavo’s vocals. Takeoff’s verse is really good, and the hook is one of the best we’ve heard from Migos in some time. Will it have the staying power of “Purple Lamborghini?” I don’t know about that, but it’s a solid track.
16) THIS IS ME – Kesha
Here’s another soundtrack song, this one from the bizarre-in-the-blandest-way-possible P.T. Barnum musical The Greatest Showman. Like any other song on this album, it’s schmaltzy, corny, and weirdly pre-9/11 in it’s doe-eyed optimism, but what really makes it is Kesha’s voice. It’s so interesting how in such a short time, Kesha’s gone from an Auto-Tuned has-been to one of the most powerful voices in pop music, but she fucking belts on this track. It’s time to start a petition to put Kesha in a musical already, or at least put her on every soundtrack album.
15) CAKIN’ – Yogi, DRAM, and Lady Leshurr
DRAM has quickly become one of my favorite artists of his class. I’m always eager to hear whatever new stuff he puts out, and this month was a bountiful one. In addition to a deluxe edition of his phenomenal debut album Big Baby DRAM, we got this new collaboration with British producer Yogi and British rapper Lady Leshurr. DRAM’s hook really ties the whole thing together, although the production is also unique and interesting and Leshurr serves up a pretty solid verse (though if you’re looking for a taste of her capabilities, check out her “Queen’s Speech” freestyles). Fun, solid song all around.
14) LAST WAVE – They Might Be Giants
Ya gotta love They Might Be Giants. Between their appearances on kids’ shows and the theme from Malcolm in the Middle, they were one of the first bands I was exposed to, period, and they’ve only gotten better with age. They’ve streamlined their weirdness to a science, with their idiosyncratic vocals, ear for hooks, and great instrumentation. I’m not sure I could pin down why I like this song a lot, but it’s definitely a prime example of just a few of the many thing TMBG has to offer. Looking forward to that new album, guys.
13) STICKY – Ravyn Lenae
With the help of rising multi-instrumentalist Steve Lacy, Ravyn Lenae pushes R&B in bold new directions with “Sticky.” It’s sublimely strange, equal parts macabre and mellifluous, some kooky hybrid of Janelle Monae and Solange with a dash of Aaliyah. Steve Lacy is quickly becoming one of the most important musicians on the scene, pushing R&B and hip hop into psychedelic new territory while working with the likes of Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and Tyler, the Creator. “Sticky” isn’t perfect– it’s a little too brash, a little too jagged– but it’s a sign of great things to come for Ravyn Lenae.
12) STIR FRY – Migos
What’s especially exciting about Migos’ recent output is that it finds them branching out from their trademark trap stylings while still maintaining the hallmarks of their unique sound. On “Stir Fry,” they team with Pharrell for an interesting melding of styles: Pharrell’s jaunty schoolyard mid-’00s pop rap melds with Migos’ signature cadences to create something starkly new and refreshing while still being undeniably Migos. It takes a moment to get used to, but by the time you get to Offset’s (phenomenal) verse, you’re hooked. It’ll definitely be interesting to see how Migos’ sound has evolved on Culture II.
11) GROWN – Chloe x Halle
For a moment in 2016, everyone was going nuts over Chloe x Halle. The sister R&B duo went from YouTube sensation to award shows, working with the likes of Missy Elliott and Beyonce, and being at the center of every music blog’s radar in a short span of a few months. And yet, where are all those critics now? These two are better than ever, as evidenced by this single and their phenomenal mixtape earlier this year, but the music community seems to have already moved on to the next obsession (Brockhampton, who we’ll get to in a bit). It’s a shame, because this song definitely deserves attention. It’s got an overwhelmingly beautiful hook, great vocal performances as always, and an interesting sort of Disney vibe to it that makes it feel really urgent and captivating. I don’t know. Don’t sleep on these gals.
10) HO HO HO – Sia
Sia’s Everyday Is Christmas album dropped last month to decent fanfare. It’s got a lot of holiday bops, but most of them ended up being sort of forgettable. Of course, the stand-out track is “Ho Ho Ho,” a simple, jaunty pseudo-shanty that builds to a thoroughly enjoyable and perfectly complements Sia’s idiosyncratic vocals. There’s a delightful instrumental break towards the end that feels like something straight out of a Rankin/Bass special. If any Everyday Is Christmas song has the makings of a holiday staple, it’s “Ho Ho Ho.”
9) FREEDOM IS A WORD – Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah feat. Vic Mensa
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah is a jazz trumpeter who released a thoroughly slept-on trio of albums in 2017, capped off with this month’s The Emancipation Procrastination. For “Freedom Is a Word,” he teams up with Vic Mensa to create a soulful jazz/rap hybrid that features some of Vic’s best bars in recent memory. I’ve been underwhelmed by some of the stuff I’ve heard from Mensa recently, so I appreciated this song on that level, and it’s also good to see major artists working with Christian, who I’m hoping to see join the ranks of folks like Steve Lacy and Thundercat in this new wave of jazzy rap.
8) ABC 123 – Tune-Yards
This is only like, the third Tune-Yards song I’ve ever heard, but clearly I’ve been missing out. “ABC 123” is a kooky electro-indie track imbued with sharp lyrics and Merrill Garbus’ uniquely ambiguous pipes. It’s excitingly weird, but still purely enjoyable, with intricate, bleak lyrics layered with pulsating, off-kilter synths and a delightfully dramatic vocal performance. It makes me eager to check out some of their older stuff, as well as eagerly anticipate their forthcoming album.
7) TAKE ME – Brasko
I’ve never heard of Brasko, I can’t seem to find much on him anywhere, and I’m quickly discovering this song didn’t technically come out in December. Still, given his relative obscurity and the fact that this song barely has 2,000 plays on SoundCloud, I felt the need to share it, because this guy is phenomenal. The song is pure Prince brilliance, slathered in synthesized guitar and ’80s drums, with Brasko’s nasally voice delivering unapologetically sexual pop reflections. I really hope to see more of this guy in the future, but regardless, it’s quite a first impression.
6) NEVER FELT LIKE CHRISTMAS – Lizzo
I swear, this is the last Christmas song. I honestly feel that I haven’t given Lizzo her fair shake on these lists in the past; she’s one of the most versatile, exciting voices on the rise in R&B today. “Never Felt Like Christmas” has all the makings of a holiday classic; it’s sentimental, thoroughly catchy, it’s got immaculate instrumentation and exquisite crooning by Lizzo herself. My only wish is that Lizzo could be the star Mariah Carey was in the early ’90s, to elevate this from a hidden gem to a phenomenon. It’s that good.
5) CAMPFIRE – DRAM and Neil Young
Hello again, DRAM. When it was announced that DRAM and Neil Young were working on some music together, I don’t think anyone really knew what to expect. Both artists are multifaceted auteurs, but it’s hard to see where the common ground between them would be. Young chiefly traffics in degrees of folk and rock, whereas DRAM fluctuates between psychedelic R&B and goofy rap tunes. Somehow, they found their mojo in “Campfire,” a groovy reggae-esque track merging DRAM’s free-form vocals and Neil Young’s artful storytelling. The result is more captivating than anything else, not particularly catchy or clever, but beautiful in its ambition. It certainly makes me want to hear more from these two together. Who would’ve thought?
4) NEVER BE THE SAME – Camila Cabello
Man, I’ve been really digging Camila Cabello lately. “Havana” was one of my favorite pop songs this year, and looking back at it, I kinda dug “Crying in the Club” too. “Never Be the Same” is stellar in a whole different way. It’s a full-on ballad, the kinda shit drunk people ruin in karaoke, an unmitigated display of range and talent that proves Camila’s got great things ahead of her, and it’s also really catchy. I wouldn’t be surprised if this were as big a hit as “Havana” in the next month or so, given the relatively lackluster crop of pop tunes coming out right now (although, Bruno Mars’ “Finesse” and whatever Timberlake’s working on are sure to draw crowds). But what’s important is, it’s a great, superbly memorable pop song that you definitely shouldn’t sleep on.
3) DON’T DON’T DO IT! – N.E.R.D feat. Kendrick Lamar
After all these years, Pharrell’s seminal alternative rap rock group N.E.R.D returned this month with a phenomenal album of apocalyptic bangers featuring a who’s who of guests (not to be confused with Gorillaz, the seminal alt group who returned in April with a phenomenal album of apocalyptic bangers featuring a who’s who of guests). I already gave props to “Lemon” last month, but “Don’t Don’t Do It!,” their new single with Kendrick Lamar might be even better. It’s got a smooth, funky intro written by Frank Ocean (!!) that flows into a frenetic, surprisingly memorable hook of “Don’t do it! Don’t don’t do it!” Kendrick’s rapid-fire verse (potentially one of the best verses of 2017) brings home the song’s themes of police violence and discrimination, creating an urgent, inescapable track built on Pharrell’s sharp-as-ever production abilities.
2) BOOGIE – Brockhampton
Oh, you thought that Brockhampton comment earlier was negative? Nah, I love these guys. “Boogie,” the lead single off this month’s Saturation III, is easily one of the hip hop boy band’s best songs to date. It features arguably the best beat they’ve ever worked with: a beautiful cacophony of blaring horns and sirens over a Pharrell-inspired drum beat that allows each member of the group to showcase their unique talent and personality in the form of a seemingly never-ending series of hooks. If you haven’t checked out any of Brockhampton’s music yet, definitely start with this one.
1) #FREESTYLE087 – Black Thought
Alright, so technically, this might not qualify as a song, but I just couldn’t resist giving it top honors. Freestyles that leave this much impact don’t come around every day, and Black Thought’s blistering ten minutes of fury over Mobb Deep’s “The Learning” instrumental is definitely one for the books. In one take, Black Thought touches on history, sociology, religion, literature, and of course his extensive back catalogue of music knowledge, including references to everyone from Kafka to Buzz Bissinger to Kanye West to Padma Lakshmi. It’s an absolutely stellar display of lyrical craftsmanship and presence, completely captivating from beginning to end in spite of its daunting length. For a long time, I’ve considered Black Thought one of the top five best rappers of all time. This just serves as further proof.
I’ve got a lot of year-end lists coming soon, including album of the year, movie of the year, verse of the year, potentially song of the year, and probably a few others, so stay tuned.