In a year when your favorite long-dormant musical act finally released new material after a multi-year hiatus, only a precious few releases -- from voices old and new -- were truly able to capture the pop culture zeitgeist. These are those albums.
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.