There was a point immediately following the November 2016 election where some naively optimistic folks tried to put a positive spin on things: At least the music will be good. Now more than a year later, we can definitely say that the presidency of Donald Trump has inspired as much drivel as it has legitimately great political music. But the best music is often a reflection of the times we live in. Looking at the following 50 songs which make up a wide-ranging snapshot of contemporary life, artists like Kesha, Kendrick Lamar, and Father John Misty thrived when facing adversity or absurdity, putting forward work that feels specifically vital in 2017.
But, of course, there is plenty of great music from 2017 that stands apart from time. Selena Gomez deftly wove one of the most famous decades-old bass lines into one of the best pop songs of the year, while Ryan Adams’ heartbroken anthems feel like they could fit comfortably in most timelines of rock and roll. Regardless of where the songwriting was coming from specifically, maybe the best throughline we can find is that music is often telling the story of endurance and survival. We made it through another year, one that felt tougher than most, and despite all the hate the world was throwing our way, we were still able to find joy in music. The miracle isn’t in the quality of the music, it’s in our ability to still enjoy it.
50. The Chainsmokers Feat. Coldplay”, “Something Just Like This”
While all the critical world shook their fist at the perma-bro DJ duo The Chainsmokers and their joint song with fellow fallen-from-grace pop fellows, Coldplay, people all over the world were blissfully rocking out to “Something Just Like This.” Because, whatever gossipy narrative emerges around Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall — who truly seem clueless, if not malicious — the two can pinpoint a synth melody that hits like a butterfly wing against your skin, then tear the gentleness down in a massive, glittering drop that mimics every goddamn high I’ve ever felt. Pair that with Chris Martin’s buttery tenor, and a radio dream was born. Almost 700 million streams on Spotify later, critics be damned, the people have spoken, and in the hellscape of 2017, they want something soft, sparkling, and vapid to tune out the noise — something just like this.–Caitlin White
49. Julie Byrne, “Natural Blue”
Released in January, Julie Byrne’s sophomore record Not Even Happiness was an early contender for one of the best records of the year, a soft folk effort that received much of the acclaim that her DIY debut Rooms With Walls And Windows began to accrue in 2014. Its lead single, “Natural Blue,” finds Byrne reminiscing upon a particularly fun evening as she heads back out on the road for several weeks of shows. It’s a quiet affair, showcasing Byrne’s powerful vocal talents as she sings of a fleeting moment over lightly strummed guitars and string accents. Byrne is able to tell the story of a full evening and its aftermath in the span of only a few minutes, making “Natural Blue” a captivating and fascinating listen.–Zac Gelfand
48. Lana Del Rey, “Love”
Kids get a bad rap nowadays: They’re lazy, entitled, spend too much time fidget spinnin’, etc. But they also have to deal with a lot, and Lana Del Rey gave them credit for that on her slow-burning comeback single “Love.” She sings, “Look at you kids, you know you’re the coolest / The world is yours and you can’t refuse it / Seen so much, you could get the blues, but / That don’t mean that you should abuse it.” The message is this: The future is in your hands, and even though it might not seem like you have much say over it, it’s yours nonetheless. So, in spite of everything, chin up, and let the love of the world guide you in some way, through all its ups and downs.
That’s heady stuff for pop music, but Lana has always been something more than pop. She’s a moody and nostalgic artist who uses the past to inform the present and whatever’s next, which works to redefine both. Ultimately, “Love” is a call to arms. The future is scary, but approach it with the openness that defines love and just maybe you’ll end up alright.–Derrick Rossignol
47. Foo Fighters, “Run”
Foo Fighters returned this summer with their first full-length album since the insanity that surrounded Sonic Highways, removing what some considered a gimmick aspect and sticking to the traditional route of sitting in a recording studio and tracking an album to its completion. “Run” is the first taste we got of Concrete And Gold, displaying Grohl and Co’s evergreen knack for writing heavy songs, featuring a light shimmering finger-picked guitar intro fading into a thrashing, distorted one-two punch of madness. It’s a track that fairs closer to the former side of the “Motorhead’s version of Sgt. Pepper” equation that Grohl promised when promoting Concrete And Gold.
Even the music video for “Run” seems to be something of a tongue-in-cheek ode to the band’s ability to still craft gravelly rockers despite their increasing age. If you haven’t seen the video, the Foos play seniors in a retirement home trying to fight their way out by attacking the orderlies. Naturally, it all culminates in a rock show.–Z.G.
46. Luis Fonsi And Daddy Yankee Feat. Justin Bieber, “Despacito”
The narrative surrounding this international mega-hit is filled with accolades. It’s the most watched Youtube video of all time. It’s the most streamed song of all time. It boosted tourism in Puerto Rico by 45 percent. You might look sideways at somebody who argues it’s the biggest song ever, but then again, they have the data to back it up.
So that’s the story, but what’s the deal with the actual song? What’s so special that’s warranted the literal billions of plays it’s racked up in 2017? Bieber is one of the biggest pop stars of the past decade is big, but “Despacito” is an undeniable pop hit even without Bieber’s contributions: It’s the original version with just Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee that has over four billion Youtube views.
Simply put, the song is the perfect mix of everything pop fans want. It’s acoustic and sexy, but with a fun beat, and it gives the feeling that you’re listening to something new. Play “Despacito” for a hipster from Seattle, a factory worker in France, or a businessman in South Africa, and they’ll all get it… and probably start moving their hips.–D.R.
45. Blis., “Take Me Home”
Atlanta’s Blis. seemingly came out of nowhere this year, dropping what is easily one of the most impressive debut albums in recent memory for an indie rock band. The record seems fully fleshed-out in ways that a first album rarely does, more like a calculated return to form from a seasoned band than a first go-around in their blurring of the boundaries between emo, shoegaze, and post-hardcore.
The record’s third track, “Take Me Home,” serves as something of a thematic cornerstone for the record, detailing frontman Aaron Gossett’s relationship with his father, and how his understanding of those relationships changed upon his own becoming a father himself. “When I had a kid, I started writing songs about being a dad instead of talking about my own dad and then the record just kind of like evolves from like this transcending generations,” he told me over the phone earlier this year. It’s not very often that a relatively new band able to dive into their own psyche so vividly, but “Take Me Home” is a shining example.–Z.G.
44. Ryan Adams, “Do You Still Love Me?”
Heartbreak isn’t a simple thing to get over. The greater the love, the deeper the void when it’s ripped from your heart. Such is the power of Ryan Adams’ “Do You Still Love Me?” that he’s managed to bridge the magnitude of his own personal emptiness in the wake of his divorce with a suite of music big enough to quantify it. Gospel organs intermingle with waves of overdriven guitar chords and an avalanche of pounding drums. In the middle, when words fail, he lets loose with a volatile solo that reaches for the stars, grasping ever-outward but failing to truly break the stratosphere.
Then again maybe the enormity of the music is a cover. Maybe the words are too open, the feelings too raw that Adams felt compelled to bury them in a wall of sound. “Another year will pass / I will count the days / Another sun goes down / And I will never see the rays.” That is some dark, Elliott Smith-type sh*t. However you want to read it, you can’t deny the stunning impact and shocking vulnerability of “Do You Still Love Me?”–Corbin Reiff
43. Rostam, “Gwan”
There are countless songs that evoke dreams. Hell, there’s even a genre, dream pop, devoted to capturing the feeling of our subconscious slumber. And where everyone might forever be chasing Sam Cooke –”I’ve got dreams to remember,” he famously sang — it’s still a striking moment when a songwriter manages to capture the places our mind goes when we lose control of it.
“All of these dreams keep coming back to me slowly,” Rostam sings on the wistful “Gwan.” The words hover above a string arrangement that finds a similar Wes Anderson-whimsy that he frequently touched on with his old band, Vampire Weekend. But here Rostam shows why going solo was important, to capture the optimism that anything is possible within his music. The song floats in the air like the pensive feelings he describes, less concerned with structure than it is on encompassing a vibe. It’s the opposite of the moment when you awake, where vivid details rapidly disintegrate. Instead, it’s a song of applying that limitless potential to our waking lives, worthy of taking its place among the all-time great dream songs.–Philip Cosores
42. (Sandy) Alex G, “Bobby”
2017 was an important year on multiple levels for Alexander Giannascoli. For one, it saw him changing his name from Alex G to (Sandy) Alex G, without giving much in the way of explanation, though ostensibly doing so to not be confused with a rising Los Angeles self-described “singer-songwriter, dreamer, visionary, and leader” also named Alex G. It saw him taking his on-record collaborations with Frank Ocean to live performance, playing guitar as part of the most visionary live performances of the year. And It also saw him release his most acclaimed work yet, Rocket, on which the Philly guitarist and songwriter expanded his range and rose above his DIY roots.
So, it’s fitting that his best song yet is an outlier in a career that’s purposefully fluid. Incorporating a somber fiddle and vulnerable harmonies while sharing vocals with Emily Yacina, “Bobby” stumbles upon a weepy bit of Americana that is as surprising as it is sturdy. The sense of desperation and longing in the lyrics is served by the melody and arrangements, enough that when the singers offer to leave their lover for another more alluring prospect, it’s as sweet as it is sad. The resulting song feels like a studio miracle, where the stars align and pieces fall into place for an artist to create something the audience didn’t even know was possible. In his most accomplished year ever, it’s just another example of everything going right for (Sandy) Alex G.–P.C.
41. Khalid, “Location”
The world needs more love songs. Not songs that consider themselves love songs based on the premise of sex, oh no. There are far too many of those. I’m merely suggesting love songs where the intent is building toward something more fruitful. When Khalid’s “Location” first arrived with little fanfare, it started off with beautiful guitar plucks and that now unmistakable vibrato. For a generation raised up in internet culture and shorthand messaging, “Location,” arrives as the song of not a moment but the song of a thousand different ones, “I don’t want to fall in love off of subtweets so, let’s get personal,” he croons.
What makes “Location” such a killer single is that it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It lingers a bit, sticks around to hammer home fair points about chasing a woman or man whom you’ve become infatuated with, and then fades out. Like any great love song, it captures the naivete of being awkward while trying to retain even the smallest ounce of cool: “I’m only acting like this cause I like you.” One debut single went from a blip on Spotify to the hands of Kylie Jenner. Then, it went on to become a multi-platinum career establisher for a 19-year-old military kid from El Paso, Texas.–Brandon Caldwell