What is pop music in the year 2017? Honestly, even pop music itself was unsure how to answer that question.
The 2016 Presidential Election lead to a hyper-polarized climate where everything was politics whether one liked it or not. Some people suggested that the coronation of Donald Trump would lead to some “great” protest music, but that astoundingly narrow-minded view negated the fact that such supposed art would come at the cost of people lost losing rights to travel and be in the military and seek sanctuary when it’s truly needed. While courts blocked some of those orders, their effects nonetheless affected an untold number of lives, leading to mass protests unlike any political movement in recent memory. No one was stopped from trying to articulate the populist rage on either side of the political spectrum through their art, but if we’re being honest here, no one has been able to pull it off successfully so far.
For evidence of this, look no further than staunch Hillary Clinton supporter Katy Perry. She finally unleashed her new album
Witness, which was lead by the vaporwave-indebted politically-minded single “Chained to the Rhythm”, and after unleashing a continuous succession of chart-topping singles, having the lead track from her new album stall at Number Four on the Billboard charts showed that Perry was whittling down her audience to the core, and the album’s two followup singles didn’t even break the Top 40.
Meanwhile, Miley Cyrus did a turn for country music as a move
to appease and court Trump supporters and show the world it was a better place (that album flopped, for the record). Conversely, planet-swallowing publicity machine Taylor Swift tried parlaying her recent dramas into confrontational dance music, but she instead got caught up in countless political narratives, from those condemning her for not condemning Trump to those claiming her music had become a rallying cry for American neo-Nazis everywhere. Even as recently as 2015, these kind of questions would never have entered the thoughtspace of any given pop idol.
So what is pop music in 2017? For some, it’s pure escapism: a way to escape the desperate headlines that dominate our everyday. For others, it’s standing up for causes that matter, which is why Logic broke through with his song “1-800-273-8255”, a heartbreaking plea to not take your own life which lead to The National Suicide Prevention Hotline (whose number is the title of the song)
to reach historic levels of call volume. For others, it wasn’t even escapism: there was music out that that just made you want to forget all of this heaviness and just dance your cares away.
No matter where your politics line up, at least we can all still rally together and celebrate some of the best pop releases of the year, whether it be a fiery new album from Betty Who, a long-anticipated new album from Haim, a surprisingly-sturdy debut release from former boy band frontman Harry Styles, the most accessible release to date from Portugal’s favorite pop-rock export The Gift to nothing of the countless unearthed and unheard of re-releases we’ve seen this year. There was an uncovered album from Dion, a re-issued classic from Paul Collins Beat, and king above them all was Prince, whose super-deluxe reissue of
Purple Rain pulled out all the stops and gave us enough unheard and oft-bootlegged tracks to qualify itself as the greatest Prince album never released.
So sit back, relax (for once), and enjoy the most joyous and surprising pop releases we’ve had the pleasure of spending time with during this monumental year.
15. House of Feelings – Last Chance EP (Infinite Best)
From its clattering saxophone wails to its emotional and joyous Shamir cameo, Matty Fasano positively announced himself to the world with the debut release under the guise House of Feelings, a dancey little ball of fire that covers a lot of genres in its scant eight songs. At times it feels like the best basement rave you’ve ever been to, at times it sounds like a bedroom pop stoner-party masterpiece, but no matter how you splice it, it’s a damn fun, often weird little album, with distorted voices asking if you remember how we met on Twitter. In many ways, there’s no rhyme or reason to the House of Feelings aesthetic, but therein lies the appeal: even in a short EP’s length, you will find yourself giddy with all of HoF’s possibilities.
14. Dune Rats – The Kids Will Know It’s Bullshit (Dine Alone)
Danny Beausa and BC Michaels make this look easy: the hooks are immediate, the attitude is bratty, and this Brisbane punk-pop grab-bag can sometimes get away with lyrics where they suddenly, outside of rhyme scheme, just say “blah blah blah”. It may sound casual or even tossed-off, but that’s the point: for the second Dune Rats full length, the group sing about free love and a guy who owes them money to score LSD, but it’s all presented with such intensity and sense of purpose that it’s hard not to want to join in on their sweaty, drug-fueled party. “Scott Green” will go down as an all-time indie-punk classic, but that song anchors an album of unrelenting energy, their lyrics filled with disaffection that’s been curbed with clouds of weed smoke. It’s trashy. It’s fun. It’s addictive. So go on: give in. This is peer pressure that you can handle, wimp.
13. Jessie Ware – Glasshouse (Interscope)
Jessie Ware’s debut album came out five years ago, but it already feels like she’s been a member of the pop music firmament for so much longer, as her beguiling voice has given and shape and form to songs that feel truly timeless, beaming in the light of the new even as it feels like they’ve been around for decades. With Glasshouse, Ware has stripped things down considerably, going for songs with bare instrumentation, which in turn forces her voice and lyrics to be the center of the show. It’s a gambit that pays off in stellar fashion, as lead single “Midnight” sounds like a modern-day soul standard, albeit on her own terms. Ware continues to take risks at every turn: “First Time” is built off a choir of her own multi-tracked vocals, while “Stay Awake, Wait for Me” has the lightest touches of country classicism painted over its sparse verses. With all these distinct detours, Glasshouse may not have been the Jessie Ware album we were expecting, but it points to all the directions her stylish and sophisticated pop sonic will be going. We’re just lucky to be along for the ride.
12. Miami Horror – The Shapes EP (self-released)
Is it weird to think of an EP as the greatest distillation of an artist’s essence? It doesn’t happen very often (some would still point to TV on the Radio’s opening salvo as their finest offering), but for Australia’s finest ’80s-pop aficionados — already two full-length albums into their career — they really gave this short, concise six-song EP everything they got. As an opening salvo, “Sign of The Times” uses Miami Horror’s group vocals to a stunningly emotional effect, while “Trapeze” feels like the best ripoff of the beat to Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” we’ve ever heard. “Azimba” (a knock of “I Zimbra” perhaps?) realizes its African-indebted polyrhythms can lead to some good-ol’-fashioned rump-shakin’, and all of this, in a scant 23 minutes, results in one of the best dance parties you’re likely to have all year. The great thing about an EP this short? Once it’s over, you’re left wanting more, which just means you’ll have to put it on again.
11. LANY- LANY (Interscope)
This full-length has been a long time coming, as the trio that is LANY (short for Los Angeles New York) have been dropping EPs full of millennial sweet-talk since 2014. Their last offering, 2016’s
kinda, showed them finally honing in on the spoke-sung smooth blog-pop sound that would become the core of their musical identity, and their eponymous debut album carries on in that vein perfectly. Every chorus is punctuated with a too-catchy-for-its-own-good keyboard riff that only serves to drive the group’s overly romantic (and sometimes borderline creepy) lyrics home. It’s a daring little album, full of heartbreaks and breakbeats, obsessions and confessions. Keep an eye on their fans this whole time, because those who fall in love with it don’t just like it: they become fixated with it — and for good reason.
10. Mack Keane – 2107 EP (MasonMack)
One listen to “I Would”, the stunning horn-centric slice of soul that sits at the heart of NYC-bred Mack Keane’s
2107 EP, and it’s obvious that beyond some obvious blue-eyed soul comparisons, Keane means what he sings, continuing on Jamie Lidell’s electronic/R&B hybrid experiments to its logical conclusion. From the midnight bedroom sleekness of “Unconventional” to the stuttering “Benny and the Jets”-aping piano bounce of “Model Behavior”, Keane establishes his pop credentials firmly on this seven-track sampler of his skills, seemingly stuck between genres but never once sounding out of place. He masters any style of song thrown his way without succumbing to mere chamelonisms, his vibrant warble finding its place within the songs but never showboating just for the sake of it. No matter which way you slice it, this is an absolutely thrilling debut.
9. !!! — Shake the Shudder (Warp)
Let’s pour one out for !!!, shall we? It seems that no matter how brilliant and propulsive their shuddering brand of dance-rock gets, people just kind of expect this level of quality from Nic Offer at this point, almost to the point of dismissal. It’s a real shame too, because
Shake the Shudder marks yet another high watermark for the band, mixing hard grooves with weird lyrics and this time out featuring some of the group’s synthiest excursions yet. “The One 2” tussles with drum-and-bass for the first time ever, but the humorous lounge groove of “Imaginary Interviews” shows that no matter how (or how little) press !!! receives these days, Offer isn’t without a great sense of humor. Joke’s on us though: !!! are just going to keep getting better whether we give them the time of day or not. Would write more about this album but can’t: too busy dancing.
8. Amelia Airhorn – Amelia Airhorn (self-released)
Release for free due to the sheer number of samples used here that would be too expensive to license, this glorious mixtape matches up the sleek dance music kings The Knocks with the creator of
PopMatters’ 2015 Best Pop Album Skylar Spence, and the melding of minds results in a project that doesn’t even try to hide how much it sounds like The Avalanches, which is just — great. Songs are built out of scraps and pieces, meaning you hear a bit of a pitch-shifted Jay-Z verse here, the Friends TV theme song there, a crazy drum break underscoring all of that. The two “Street Performers” are custom-made for getting crazy on the dance floor and “NY Is Red Hot” grinds and boogies with horns blaring out the lead melody lines, but it’s that solo pop single that is “Miracle” that truly captivates, the first new lick of Skylar Spence music we’ve heard in some time. It’s a barn-stormer of a banger, rife with sampled disco strings, Daft Punk-aping synth work underneath, and a feeling of euphoria that washes over you before the song even ends. The whole album may have been conceived as a one-off goof of a collaboration, but these songs will stick with us for years to come.
7. Lorde – Melodrama (Lava)
It’s hard to know what we were expecting for Lorde’s second full-length, ‘cos as dominating and intriguing as her sparse-beats-meets-hyperspecific-lyrics mindset was, her debut album came out when she was only 16 years old. Impressive as it was, a lot can change during your teenage years, so when she took four years until the release of
Melodrama, we didn’t know certain things, like how she had snuck off to make the album with go-to pop music producer Jack Antonoff, whose piano-based pop leanings seemed like a natural fit for everyone’s favorite New Zealand diva. The end result was still surprising though, as her songs were more fully musically realized, more fleshed out. Her lyrics, however, were as cutting as ever, and songs like “Homemade Dynamite” and “Supercut” showed off her biting view towards romance, later dropping casual swears in the midst of otherwise soundtrack-ready songs like “Perfect Places” because why not? Lorde’s been offered a lot of freedom in a very short amount of time, and she’s using every inch of it to lay out a very specific vision — we’re all just lucky to bear witness.
6. St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION (Loma Vista)
St. Vincent wasn’t in need of saving: she switched to the major label system for 2014’s self-titled effort, and it turned into her highest-charting record yet despite the fact that it was arguably her weirdest record to date.. Yet the St. Vincent we get on
MASSEDUCTION can’t turn off what turns it on, and even with some Jack Antonoff pop overtones, it somehow manages to out-weird even its predecessor, layering the guitar parts and over-elaborate production to the point where it feels like the album is an alien machine that spits out nothing but sex jams for robots that can feel. Yet as lusty and lovely as the whole affair is, Annie Clark still found time to write her most concise and unadorned pop songs to date, leaving “New York” as a true blue classic that sits outside of her eccentricities yet is born from them regardless. It’s a stunning work from one of indie rock’s most daring artists, a pop record that’s recognizable in structure but gloriously foreign in the details that could only come from St. Vincent and no one else.
5. Dan Auerbach – Waiting on a Song (Nonesuch)
After the bedroom-acoustic effort that was Dan Auerbach’s first solo album outside of The Black Keys, few would’ve guessed that for a followup, our bearded hero would go full ELO? Yet summoning the spirit of Jeff Lynne was exactly what Waiting on a Song set out to do, lead single “Shine on Me” brilliantly playing like a track that should’ve been on Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 2. Elsewhere, the strings and horns that ride along during “Malibu Man” drench the surrounding song in a lovely hue of ’70s AM gold, leaving the rest of the album perfectly fit for Starlord, Groot, and the rest of the Guardians of the Galaxy to sing along to. There’s imitation and then there’s inhabiting the spirit of your idols, and Waiting on a Song pulls off the latter category in spectacular fashion.
4. Niteshifters – Hard Disco (Delimusic)
People refer to modern record as disco-inspired all the time, but few really capture the essence, the opulence that made disco the movement that it was. For the London-based Niteshifters, they’re absolutely tuned in to every horn stab, soaring string section, high-hat gallop, and diva histrionics that make disco what it is. For their sensational, shimmy-inducing debut, the band re-creates the Studio 54 sound without even a trace of irony, vocal cuts melding with instrumental takes and live band workouts boogieing next to keyboard driven affairs in equal measure. You can’t achieve this level of kitsch without having a deep-seated love of the material you’re trying to work with, and
Hard Disco as big a mirrorball love letter as ever existed.
3. White Sea – Tropical Odds (Crepuscule)
Although she was a songwriting force on some of M83’s most heralded albums, Morgan Kibby truly broke out into her own under the guise of White Sea with her 2014 debut
In Cold Blood. The hooks were immediate and the lyrics weren’t afraid to walk through walls and gut your fish. Initially conceived a series of singles before Kibby finally relented and put it out as an album, Tropical Odds is a moodier flipside of White Sea’s mid-tempo sound, her stoned thoughts putting a gloriously overcast sky on her lyrics, her music, and her whole aesthetic. She confronts her fears regarding intimacy, the meaningless of life, and so much more — but all of it is wrapped in memorable hooks, ascending synth lines, and her perfectly curated vocal takes that let the emotion breathe through without once overpowering the songs in question. It’s an underappreciated gem that may very well articulate your own gloomy year perfectly. Pour yourself a glass of red wine: Morgan’s here for you.
2. Jens Lekman – Life Will See You Now (Secretly Canadian)
It’s not that
I Know What Love Isn’t, the 2012 release from everyone’s favorite Swedish pop jester Jens Lekman, was a letdown so much as it was an acknowledgment that even with all of the genre jumping that Lekman puts all his quirky songs against, sometimes it’s nice to sit back with a tight band and not worry about turning a new musical trick with every track. Life Will See You Now, his first new full-length in five years, dismisses Isn’t’s thesis entirely by positively exploding with color, his confidence beaming even more than before. Whether it be the breakdown in his spectacular single “What’s That Perfume That You Wear?” or the quiet mandolin plucking on the sweet “How Can I Tell Him” or the sweet minimalist tell-off from his 2015 singles project “Postcard #17”, there is no shortage of joys or surprises to be found on one of the most diverse and stunning pop events this side of Shugo Tokomaru record.
1. Kesha – Rainbow (RCA)
Following the too-public, drawn-out, heartbreaking legal battles that Kesha had with her former producer — and the record contract clauses that prevented her from releasing any new music under her own terms — the eventual comeback of a singer who shot to fame with ludicrously crunk numbers like “Tik Tok” could’ve taken most any form, and as the emotional, Ryan Lewis-produced single “Praying” showed us,
Rainbow could’ve easily been a mournful, empowering record about overcoming some of life’s most rendering challenges.
What a true shock it was to instead find that
Rainbow contained a variety of moods as kaleidoscopic as its title, moving from celebratory to reflective to downright goofy, each song feeling like it belonged on a greatest hits compilation. There was no fiercer declaration of independence this year than the on the horn-driven “Woman”, no charging punk-pop hybrid as relentlessly nonsensical as “Boogie Feet”, and no off-the-cuff acoustic number as sly and sweet as “Godzilla”. No other record in 2017 managed to balance pathos with pure fun as deftly and effortlessly as Rainbow, and by the time Dolly Parton shows up to cover an old standard of hers — which Kesha’s mom wrote back in the late ’70s — there is a sense of unity and warmth contained on that recording track that cannot be replicated with a budget ten times the size. One can’t dismiss the narrative of redemption that lead Kesha to this moment, but Rainbow doesn’t shy away from it either: it embraces it, plays with it, and turns it into what is unquestionably the best pop album of the year.