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
40. Travis Meadow, “First Cigarette”
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Travis Meadows has a life that sounds like the short end of the stick. No matter. On First Cigarette, he breaks that stick in half and throws both ends into the fire, letting the pain dissolve in crackling odes that may light the way for future sufferers. As a child, Meadows lost a leg to cancer, watched helplessly as his baby brother drowned, and struggled with the demons of addiction for decades. Now sober, the title track off his new dark and stunning new country record grasps at the tiny comforts of a life now shielded from larger perils. Like a glowing ember, the song barely rises above a growling lullabye whisper, detailing every turn of desire and despair that Meadows has seen over a steely guitar backbone and echoing percussion. Burning bright and true like all the country greats, this song is a silky, resilient spark that won’t go out, no matter how many times you light it up.–C.W.
39. Julia Michaels, “Issues”
Julia Michaels has a voice like a sugar cube. Just when you think it couldn’t be any more perfect she breaks it down into a rush of sweetness that absolutely crushes what came before. That’s how this song melts, from gorgeously constructed verses right into the vocal-fried, Russian roulette chorus. On her now Grammy-nominated hit single “Issues,” Michaels finds solace in a lover that’s as fucked up as her, readily admitting to her tiny, toxic cycles of petty behavior — and the adoration that fuels them.
Luckily for her, the object of her affection, in this song at least, is surprisingly happy to exchange flaws as an act of intimacy, building a relationship that’s all the stronger due to each partner’s self-awareness of their shortcomings. Given how many times a day the mainstream press blames self-conscious millennials for ruining the economy, society, and the world, it’s a subtle change to hear one taking the words right out of everyone else’s mouth, and flipping them back into a strength. Even if this doesn’t win the Grammy for Song Of The Year that it’s been nominated for, it’s a 2017 rallying cry for all the damaged hearts still out there doing the damn thing, no matter the odds..–C.W.
38. Colter Wall, “Codeine Dream”
Wrap yourself in the bear hug of Colter Wall’s voice, and settle in for a self-deprecating journey through night terrors and the soft, plush pull of a drugged-out escape. Yes, Wall is a country singer indulging in the kind of narcotic solace that mainstream press has typically associated with hip-hop. And while Kodak Black put out a song of his own called “Codeine Dreaming” this year, Wall’s ode to cough syrup comes cloaked in a bleak break-up comparison that’s as well-worn as either a bar and a half about lean and styrofoam cups, or an old country road. Yet neither of those cliches cling with the same syrupy closeness as Wall’s indulgence in a painkiller that borders on a death wish. Cowboy songs barely find their way out into the world in 2017, but this is a throwback heartbreaker too pristine to escape notice. It’s hard to tell if what’s slower, his close-picked guitar melody, his lonesome vocals, or the realization that in a year like this one, desperation anthems are oddly comforting.–C.W.
37. The xx, “I Dare You”
I’m not sure who was the first person to refer to The xx as hipster makeout music, but even as the trio have expanded their sound to match their swelling popularity, it often still sounds best in the backseat snuggled close to someone you care about. It’s certainly the dueting leads that add to the ardor, as the sensation created by a pair of vocalists is easy to evoke the idea of coupling. And it’s also their sensual delivery, where Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim turn ideas like lust and desire into palpable concepts through the way the words roll of their tongues.
So, when Croft delivers her best line on I See You highlight “I Dare You,” confessing “I’ve been a romantic for so long / All I’ve ever heard are love songs,” she stumbles upon the experience of listening to her own band. It can be dressed up and lined with mirrors just like their live shows, but it’s the romance of it all that makes The xx special. On “I Dare You,” it’s presented like the gauntlet, the challenge, and the adventure that it should be. It’s a great love song because it makes you reconsider the concept. It’s great because it knows that there are still truths to be gleaned from the feeling.–P.C.
36. Strand Of Oaks, “Radio Kids”
Tim Showalter, the gregarious and prodigiously bearded mastermind of Strand Of Oaks, used to be a sad-eyed coffeeshop folkie, singing beautifully spare, autobiographical songs on a lonely acoustic guitar over the occasional vintage synthesizer lick. But with 2014’s HEAL, he made a pivot toward ’90s-inspired alt-rock that has subsequently evolved into the unabashed arena-rock moves of this year’s Hard Love. A lifelong acolyte of Billy Corgan, Showalter wrote his own version of those enormous Mellon Collie-era singles with the anthemic “Radio Kids,” crafting an addictive synth-rock hook and imploring teens all around the world to “play it loud.” Unfortunately, pop radio stopped playing songs like “Radio Kids” around the time that Adore was released. But you can’t fault Showalter for trying.–Steven Hyden
35. Julien Baker, “Appointments”
That sound you hear is not Julien Baker’s “Appointments.” No, that sound is your ribcage collapsing with grief while Julien Baker’s “Appointments” softly wafts in and out in the background. I’m not sure there’s been another song this brutally honest about how a relationship can come unglued as this one. We like to imagine that our romantic unions end with an emphatic boom, when in reality, most close with a soul-deflating whimper.
In “Appointments,” Baker comes to grips with the fact that the person she loves doesn’t love her as she exists, but pines for the person she used to be. “You don’t want to bring it up / And I already know how it looks / You don’t have to remind me so much / How I disappoint you.” But even as she understands this, she can’t allow herself to her accept what feels inevitable. “Maybe it’s gonna turn out alright / And I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is.” Denial is the ultimate opiate; comforting but destructive all the same.–C.R.
34. Hurray For The Riff Raff, “Living In The City”
“I learned at a young age that survival in the city for me meant having a crew,” Hurray For The Riff Raff singer Alynda Segarra explained in a press release heralding her band’s single “Living In The City.” New York has been the setting of many pop songs throughout the years, and several of the most beloved elegies to Gotham are littered with unforgettable characters. In the great spirit of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” or “Walk On The Wild Side,” Segarra unfurls her own unique cast of weirdos and vagabonds; her crew.
There’s Big Danny wasted again, but present enough to lend a compliment. Here’s Mariposa “All in her dark apartment” singing love songs. There’s that gypsy with the sh*tty hat. Of course, just like in every great New York song, the city itself is a distinct character, and Segarra loves to watch it from desolate rooftops near to the river. Alluring imagery and wistful visions “of all who came before them” abound.–C.R.
33. Perfume Genius, “Slip Away”
Queer culture is as celebrated on a broad scale as its ever been, and yet, there are still many challenges the community faces on the road to total acceptance. This dichotomy is what Perfume Genius tried to capture on this track, previously comparing it to the “kind of bittersweet, but so real and moving and complicated” ending of his favorite movie, Dogfight. The song is undoubtedly a journey, a brief but bombastic one that lives between the extremes of alternative, Sufjan Stevens-style indie pop and, dare I say, something close to metal at times.
“Oh, ooh love / They’ll never break the shape we take / Oh, ooh / Baby, let all them voices slip away,” he sings in the song’s emotional hook, and that’s the thesis statement: People will talk, but since the worst lie you can tell is the one you tell yourself, be genuine, be strong, and be yourself. That’s one thing that can’t be taken away from you.–D.R.
32. Carly Pearce, “If My Name Was Whiskey”
On her sly and sexy debut album Every Little Thing, country newbie Carly Pearce comes through time and again with drinking songs, love songs, and the gold standard, heartbreak songs. As unexpected as it might be, “If My Name Was Whiskey” is a tearjerker ballad about a lost love who no longer craves a fix of Carly like he does his favorite hard liquor. His devotion to the bottle is a far cry from his disinterest in her, but the contrast between the two is drawn with the kind of cleverness that this genre has long rewarded. So, this sweetly sad song takes the country tradition and twists it to fit the singer’s own suffering, using old cliches like jukebox needles and neon lights to draw fresh blood. Deep cuts like this rarely go down so smooth. Even if Pearce didn’t have a voice like top-shelf liquor, her ability to reframe the past in stunning first-person fashion marks her as an emerging star to keep an eye on.–C.W.
31. Migos, “T-Shirt”
There is a troika on Migos’ second major label album Culture that stands as arguably the most technical yet commercial rap to emit out of Atlanta in 2017. For sixteen minutes, the North Atlanta trio usher in a gifted, glitzy album with absolute bangers. The closer, “Bad and Boujee,” was their first ever No. 1 single. If you found yourself at the epicenter of Migos Mania in 2017, there was one argument that rang louder than others: “T-Shirt” is the better of the two songs.
Constructed from a tribute to fallen D4L co-founder Shawty Lo and one of his greatest moments of soundness, “T-Shirt” builds to a strong wave and coasts from there. It’s a trap anthem that pays homage yet avoids repetitive gothic drums and organ keys and instead, morphs into a bouncy, take-no-prisoners decree. Thank Nard & B’s production for that, as it slinks in and out of Takeoff and Quavo’s verses like it were snaking through holiday traffic. In the case you forgot where this slice of country grammar arrived from, Takeoff quickly reminds you: “Straight out North Atlanta.”
The Migos took the bando mainstream and gave “T-Shirt” an enterprising video that got its vision from The Revenant. Who did it for the culture better than them?–B.C.
30. Sampha, “No One Knows Me Like My Piano”
Coming home is a cathartic experience. The comfort of merely existing in the place where you knew safety, peace, security, and certainty is like a soothing balm from the slings and arrows of life. I would argue that it’s the true meaning of love. In that case, “(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano” is one of the greatest love songs ever created.
It’s not just Sampha’s broken-ceramic tenor, or the warmth of the mostly unaccompanied keys, or even the barest whisper of the organ that fills the last third of the song like the heat from a cheerful fire in the hearth fills a room. It’s those lyrics: “No one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home / You would show me I had something some people call a soul.”
There’s appreciation in there, yes, but there is also a longing — a melancholic note that suggests that home isn’t what it used to be. It’s the most universal of sensations, of needs. We all need someplace we can call home. It’s a song about loss, but it’s also about harboring that warm feeling, about taking the lessons with you and knowing, at the end of it all, that you were loved.–Aaron Williams
29. Kurt Vile And Courtney Barnett, “Over Everything”
On paper, pairing Courtney Barnett with Kurt Vile seems almost too obvious, like watching Dazed And Confused at midnight after smoking a bowl. But there was still reason to wonder where these two iconoclastic indie singer-songwriters could accommodate each others’ eccentricities in advance of Lotta Sea Lice. Fortunately, the album’s blessedly chill introductory single, “Over Everything,” immediately eased any concerns, perfectly melding Vile’s stoner-dude stoicism and frayed guitar solos with Barnett’s offhand wit and affectingly conversational vocals. They don’t duet as much as comfortably share the same space, trading lines like bantering buddies on the tour bus. While it will be great to see both artists return to their solo careers in 2018, Barnett and Vile already seem like they’ve been bandmates for years.–S.H.
28. Sorority Noise, “No Halo”
Sorority Noise’s You’re Not As _____ As You Think is an emotional tour de force filled equally with catchy hooks and impassioned screams. “No Halo” opens the record with a speedy riff and a low-ton mumble from Cameron Boucher where he introduces the main themes of the record: Mourning, reconciliation, and moving forward. The full band enters in full throttle as Boucher screams “So I didn’t show up to your funeral, but I showed up to your house.” He swears he sees his recently deceased friend inside the house, but realizes he’s just looking at himself in the reflection of the window. Needless to say, it’s heavy sh*t.
“No Halo” is an emo song in all sense of the word, but it’s Boucher’s off-the-cuff writing style that takes it up a notch. It’s this style of songwriting that does wonders for the evocative storytelling in his songs and allows audiences to connect with the hyper-specific, yet harrowingly relatable moments in his life.–Z.G.
27. Frank Ocean, “Chanel”
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Frank Ocean is as enigmatic an artist as the modern music world has seen, but in his deliberate decision to become just that, Frank has become a throwback of sorts. In a world where most artists exist in the public sphere as selfie-posting, Twitter-ranting social media aficionados, Frank is practically invisible, existing solely in song and on stage.
This makes each musical outing impactful, especially when its his first release since his two albums in 2016 Blonde and Endless. Debuted on the second episode of his Beats 1 radio show Blonded Radio, “Chanel” is an ode to duality and, more importantly, his bisexuality. While he has sung about his sexuality and his relations with men in hushed tones before, here he proclaims his identity loud and clear, boasting “I see both sides like Chanel.” Not only is the most reclusive and shadowy figure in modern music proudly belting out details of his life as a bisexual man, but he’s making it stylish and beautiful, comparing his bisexuality to a Chanel purse, the holy grail for bag toters everywhere. It was one of the most salient musical moments of 2017, and it was in a song, not a tweet, just like Frank intended.–Eddie Gonzalez
26. The National, “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness”
At this point, listening to The National might seem like investing in municipal bonds — reliable, gradually enriching, and rock solid in the best possible way. However, these guys still find ways to surprise you on this year’s great (of course) Sleep Well Beast. The album’s first single and best song, “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness,” includes an actual, honest-to-goodness guitar solo, a radical departure for a band that normally eschews even typical guitar riffs. Did The National’s recent dalliances with the Grateful Dead for the Day Of The Dead compilation rub off? Perhaps, though long-time fans probably don’t have to worry about The National going the jam-band route anytime soon. Look beyond the six-sting pyrotechnics and “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness” is a National song through-and-through, simmering with slow-burn intensity and striking lyrical intimacy.–S.H.
25. Kendrick Lamar, “Humble”
Kendrick Lamar was already widely regarded as the so-called best rapper alive before 2017 but this year he ascended into a new stratosphere of commercial success. His DAMN. album went platinum in a month, and so far has over two million units sold. It’s the highest selling hip-hop record of 2017, which is resounding proof that lyrically dense hip-hop can sell. Kendrick channeled fellow LA native Russell Westbrook with the ultimate hip-hop triple-double: A BET Best Lyricist Award, a number one album, and a number one song with “Humble,” the 6-4 optimized lead single for DAMN.
With “Humble,” Kendrick took it to the essence, skillfully flowing over a Mike Will Made-It-crafted piano loop that evokes memories of the West Coast’s “gangsta rap” heyday. Kendrick didn’t threaten anyone though, he just found his pocket and filled it with quotables. His MC mastery was on full display as he was able to get his bars off, but fit them into a melodic cadence ripe to be recited at the top of your lungs. The track bumps in the whip, in the club, and fits in the mix of any hip-hop purist’s playlist. It’s that kind of rare feat that highlights why he’s the one for his generation. As long as he follows the formula of DAMN. and “Humble,” he will remain the most important rapper in the game. Until then, would-be competitors know what they can do.–Andre Gee
24. Hiss Golden Messenger, “Domino (Time Will Tell)”
On his wildly underrated recent album Hallelujah Anyhow, the near-legendary North Carolina songwriter MC Taylor pays homage to the beyond legendary Van Morrison on album standout “Domino (Time Will Tell).” Even if you haven’t heard Morrison’s own song of the same name — “Domino,” a tribute to New Orleans great Fats Domino — Taylor’s song holds up as an absolute celebration of southern brass, blaring in on cigarette smoke and lady luck, and not letting up until its backbeat is thwacking at the most existential of life’s questions: “Will you bang the drum when I’m burning?” Whatever way you want to phrase the deepest inquiries into loyalty and legacy, there are few people who get closer to the heart of the matter than Taylor, who has released not one, but three superb albums as Hiss Golden Messenger in the last twelve months. So, whatever doubts may still blaze in his own chest, there’s not an ounce of hesitation in my pronouncement of Taylor as one of the best living songwriters in his milieu. You don’t need luck when you’ve got an open blues tuning and a heart like a levee.–C.W.
23. Selena Gomez, “Bad Liar”
If you want to get technical, it took forty years for this sparse-sounding single (which was co-written with Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter) to come together: That simple-but-oh-so-tasty bass line that permeates the song is lifted directly from Talking Heads’ 1977 single “Psycho Killer.” While sampling from oddball indie rock might not be the traditional path towards pop success, it works to tremendous effect here. And while Gomez’s vocal performance on the midtempo track isn’t exactly standard radio fare, with its sometimes jerky singing in the verses (although the repeated “I’m tryin’, I’m tryin'” is candy), it has undeniable groove and mass appeal.
That’s perhaps because, and not in spite, of its subtle quirkiness, which helps the song sound fresh with commercial appeal that floats atop honest-to-goodness substance and low-key experimentation: Heck, even David Byrne said he’s into it.–D.R.
22. Drake, “Passionfruit”
You know this song. The breezy, unofficial single from Drake’s weirdly-executed “playlist” More Life was everywhere this year, despite receiving almost no promotion from OVO itself. It’s tropical vibes threw a chokehold on radio in the spring, from adult contemporary stations to hip-hop to Top 40, and never once felt out of place — an achievement for the kid from Toronto, to be sure.
The thing about “Passionfruit” is that it lives in your head long after that initial play. Drake had already mastered the art of crafting near-perfect earworms that beg to be repeated ad nauseam, with status update-ready one-liners and catchy, relatable hooks running throughout his catalog, but “Passionfruit” pairs those aspects with the easygoing, two-stepping, Afropop-aping beat that becomes instantly recognizable and practically unavoidable all at once.
“Passionfruit” is Drake at his most Drake, with all that entails. It plays up his schmaltzy, nice-guy demeanor but avoids the point of annoyance by cutting it with irresistible, toe-tapping vibes that filled dance floors all summer and will likely continue to live on as noncommittal lounge music for the rest of the decade. In an era of microwave popcorn hits with an audience always hungry for the next viral moment, that’s an accomplishment in itself.–A.W.
21. Phoebe Bridgers, “Smoke Signals”
Artists don’t always have the most accurate idea of what their best song is. And it makes sense, as it’s hard to separate the process that went into making it from the experience that the audience has in listening to it. Still, when I asked Phoebe Bridgers earlier this year which song from her excellent debut, Stranger In The Alps, she is most proud of, she didn’t hesitate to highlight “Smoke Signals.” As the kickoff to an album of witty introspection and somber insights, it’s great in that it sets the tones to everything Bridgers does well. She cements the song in a time and a place by shouting out the Silver Lake Reservoir and mentioning the deaths of Bowie and Lemmy, and she let’s slip her sly sense of humor in a line like “And all of our problems, I’m gonna solve them / With you riding shotgun, speeding, ’cause fuck the cops.”
For an artist that could be easy to pigeonhole for her spare arrangements and confessional lyricism, Bridgers defies such easy classifications. “Smoke Signals” doesn’t lay on the production with grand gestures, but honors the delicacy of Bridgers’ voice and the nuances of her lyrics with enough flourishes to make the song seem large in scale. As one of the last things she wrote for her record, it strikes as her most mature as well, like a quick glimpse as to where one of music’s most promising songwriters could be heading sooner rather than later.–P.C.
20. Future, “Mask Off”
Who could have guessed that heading into 2017, the hot new trend in rap would be fluttering flute melodies? Such is the power of Future’s highest-charting single to date, “Mask Off.” Gucci Mane tested it out. So did Drake. For a solid month there, social media was overstuffed with people posting videos of themselves partaking in the so-called “Mask Off” challenge to hilarious, epic, and groan-inducing effect. You can’t buy that kind of ubiquity.
While Future’s name is the one attached to the song itself, “Mask Off” is really another feather in the cap of Metro Boomin, a producer who’s neck and neck these days with Mike Will Made-It over the race to grab the “Most Impactful Producer In Rap” crown. Future comes correct with his standard lyrical content — Percocet’s, Mollies, and more Percocet’s — the song’s impact is really felt through the rhythms and melodies. The music sounds downright ominous, loaded with as much dread as anything else released this year. The discordant choir sample tacked into the middle is inspired.–C.R.
19. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Cut To The Feeling”
The inevitable happened: I hit a wall. Not a literal brick-and-concrete wall, but a figurative one, the kind you smash into when you’re at mile 22 of a 26.2 mile race. My body hurt, my legs felt like they were made of cement, and I made up my mind: I was done with running. But then a song came on my iTunes (“I had a dream, or was it real?”) and I suddenly felt like I could do another 20 miles. Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Cut to the Feeling,” which was recorded during the E•MO•TION sessions but went unreleased until the soundtrack for Leap, is the most infectiously fun song of 2017. It’s a luscious jolt of bombastic energy, the perfect pick-me-up at the end of a hard day (or a physically and mentally challenging race). “Cut” may lack subtlety — the chorus includes an “mmm” and “oh yeah” — but it’s profoundly exuberant.–Josh Kurp
18. Lil Uzi Vert, “XO Tour Llif3”
The success of Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Llif3” might as well serve as the blueprint for hit-making in the streaming era. TM88 made the beat with little more than an old computer and a Beats Pill, modifying an older production to craft Uzi’s biggest hit in a pinch. For Uzi, it was a random Soundcloud upload on a long-forgotten four-pack of songs titled Luv Is Rage 1.5 as fans patiently waited for the true sequel to his breakthrough 2015 mixtape Luv Is Rage. But by uploading the four tracks onto Soundcloud, he essential turned to the world’s largest focus group, the internet, and allowed them to chose his artistic direction and catapult a random song onto Billboard‘s top 10. So, yeah, while it’s Uzi’s grasp of melody that made the track so infectious, his decision to let the fans chose what song they liked best from his random four-pack release is what made it the biggest hit of his career.
The track is as unique as Uzi himself: A rapper wailing about a breakup and lashing out on his ex, all while finding time to stunt about his money, then self-loathe and drown himself in his favorite substances. Uzi labeled it as “alternative rock” on his Soundcloud, but with a song that blurs genre lines as much as “XO Tour Llif3,” stuffing it into any box is a disservice.–E.G.
17. Syd, “Body”
There’s something to be said for the fact that Syd does sensuous musical come-ons toward women better than most men have done in the past several decades. There’s a saying that “it takes a thief to catch a thief.” I think the R&B version goes something like, “It takes a woman to properly seduce a woman.” In that case, “Body” is worth a hundred of the best quiet storm, get-the-drawers mixes created by men.
Syd gets to the heart of something that most male singers singing to women don’t. There’s a slinky, visually evocative vibe to “Body” that places control, consent, and command in the hands of her subject. While most men plead, cajole, and deign to grant permission to misbehave, Syd grants permission to simply behave. “Your body’s taking over you,” she coos, implying and imploring in the same breath, without the need to push, pull, or otherwise convince her partner for the evening to do what they both want. Equality is a thing that is so often missing in this type of song, that it feels subtly abnormal to hear it, like a whisper just over your shoulder from an unseen shadow. You turn and it’s gone and you wonder if it was ever really there to begin with, but whatever it said changed your perception ever so slightly so that you can never see things the same way again. Here’s hoping the men of R&B learn a thing or two from Syd.–A.W.
16. Gang Of Youths, “What Can I Do If The Fire Goes Out”
What if you could hear every great indie-rock song from the mid-’00s again for the first time, at the same time? It might be like “What Can I Do If The Fire Goes Out,” a standout track from Gang Of Youths’ stunning second album, Go Farther In Darkness, which has the fury of “The Rat,” the eloquence of “Fake Empire,” and the uplift of The ’59 Sound. But singer-songwriter Dave Le’aupepe doesn’t just synthesize ideas pilfered from other bands. He is, above all else, a seeker of philosophical truth and visceral sensation, questioning whether God exists while full-on embracing the glorious bombast of unapologetically earnest rock. At home in Australia, this band’s ambitions are matched by the size of its audience. (Go Farther In Darkness battled Ed Sheeran at the top of the country’s albums chart this summer.) In the US, however, the group is largely unknown, though the impassioned “What Can I Do If The Fire Goes Out” ought to win some instant stateside converts.–S.H.
15. Feist, “Pleasure”
When many people first met Leslie Feist, she was dancing with exuberant choreography, backed by playful trumpets and handclaps in the iconic “1234” video. Or even further back, maybe it was her floating above a crowd of dancers in the “Mushaboom” clip. But the song that became her breakout and her penchant towards whimsy seemed like distant memories by the time of 2011’s underrated Metals.
On “Pleasure,” the lead single from the album of the same name and Feist’s first new single since the Metals cycle, Feist continues to redefine herself. She’s always played her guitar with the same philosophy in which she sings, allowing for occasional imperfections in the name of personality. And on “Pleasure,” every screech of her fingers sliding up the fretboard adds a backbone for her signature yelp to reach the song’s eventual explosion. She’s still dancing in its video, but is less orchestrated and more spontaneous in her movements. Appropriately, Feist sounds freer than ever on the track, unburdened by her past successes and happy to show another side of her that we’ve never heard. It’s her pleasure, yeah, but it’s our pleasure, too.–P.C.
14. Japandroids, “Arc Of Bar”
How does something that is already perfectly simple evolve? This was the conundrum faced by Japandroids on Near To The Wild Heart Of Life, the Canadian duo’s first album in five years, and the follow-up to 2012’s beloved Celebration Rock. For a band with an admittedly narrow sonic palette, even the slightest changes can resound in outsized ways — a statelier-than-usual tempo, synth accents that evoke The Who’s stadium-rock era, and narrative lyrics that go on (and on) for seven minutes. Compared with the three-chords-and-the-truth formula of Celebration Rock, “Arc Of Bar” is a virtual prog-rock epic, sprawling like a double-gatefold LP at the heart of the album. Those who remain partial to Celebration Rock gravitated to more familiar tracks like the kinetic title track or the heart-rending “No Known Drink Or Drug.” But “Arc Of Bar” proves that Japandroids can shake up their sound without losing the go-for-broke power of their best work.–S.H.
13. Big Thief, “Shark Smile”
In a parallel universe, this is the number one song of the year. Whether or not you’ve heard of Big Thief and the extraordinary life story of their frontwoman Adrianne Lenker, she possesses a certain, painful magic that’s immediately recognizable in her most compelling songs. For me, “Shark Smile” is at the very top of that already substantial heap, careening by on fire engine guitars and freeway drums. It’s the story of a car crash, but it’s also the story of every slow, inevitable disaster in the history of human life; it’s a Greek tragedy rolling along a cliff in a Cadillac, Romeo & Juliet without their seatbelts on, Thelma And Louise retold as a poem. Lenker sings of a car accident, yes, but also of the close, precious moments that jolt between lovers as they howl through the world together, enclosed in their own private universe. She sings of the malicious forces that spell catastrophe instead of calm, of all the great injustices that love’s courage seems to evoke. She sings of minnows devoured by a shark — but even while they bleed out, predators can’t destroy what this song remembers.–C.W.
12. Jay-Z, “The Story Of O.J.”
“The Story Of O.J.” turned out to be as controversial as its namesake. Jewish people wondered if Jay-Z’s allusion to their supposed ownership of “all the property in America” was antisemitic. Rappers from Drake to Future to Juicy J to Boosie Badazz defied his “Ya’ll on the ‘Gram holdin’ money to your ear / There’s a disconnect, we don’t call that money over here” bar. A church youth group set Facebook on fire with a “Story Of O.J.”-inspired praise dance that neglected to edit the plethora of N-bombs that pepper the song’s hook.
And yet, for all that controversy, it seemed the messages never truly got drowned out by the din. Perhaps it was because there were so very many. The Nina Simone sample from “Four Women” evokes the evergreen colorism debate while undercutting the intraracial division by reminding listeners that in the eyes of many, Black people will simply always be “the help” — in whatever form that takes. The reference to O.J. seems especially prescient in light of public backlash against the NFL for the perceived blackballing of Colin Kaepernick and the continuing protests he inspired. Jay’s lyrical call to financial literacy was ridiculed by some for seeming shortsighted and naive, but the principles espoused are no less valid, even if they can be interpreted as elitist. “The Story Of O.J.” is Jay-Z at his most sober-minded and altruistic, but it’s a stark reminder at its core — one that is all too resonant in a world that seems intent on backsliding to a worse version of itself.–A.W.
11. Taylor Swift, “New Year’s Day”
If Taylor Swift were to retire tomorrow for a quiet life of grooming horses on a farm in South Dakota, and Reputation was her last album, the final verse in her discography would include the lyric: “Hold on to the memories, they will hold on to you.” That’s a decent summation of Swift’s entire career, and one of the most sincere statements on her most polarizing album. Reputation is an oft-sour and distant listen, but “New Year’s Day” is refreshingly honest. “I want your midnights,” she sings, “but I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year’s Day.” It’s easy to fall for someone during the heightened feelings of New Year’s Eve, but what about the next morning, when the party’s over and the apartment’s a mess? The person who cleans up empty bottles with you, that’s true love. It’s not romantic, but it’s something more important: It’s real.–J.K.
10. Fleet Foxes, “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me”
One of my favorite professors in college had a saying: “The joy of recognition is greater than the joy of surprise.” When I was young and brash, I used to shake my head in disagreement, certain that the rush of the unexpected would always hit with more force than anything familiar. Now, at the ripe old age of 29, I’ve learned that he was right all along. With a decade more of experience, I’ve learned that the greatest joy does lie in an unexpected encounter, not with something totally new, but with something utterly familiar. The joy of recognition is completely encompassed in Fleet Foxes sumptuous comeback record, Crack-Up, and nowhere more clearly than this mid-album track. Sweet and slow, aware of disaster and yet not shaken, the song offers itself as a stabilizing force in a world full of uncertainty. Like a beloved landmark in the distance, Robin Pecknold’s voice is a beacon of hope for a generation that grew up on the edge of his fleeting, folksy tenor. His return is a reassurance that while the world may fracture, some things are just kismet, too unshakeable to fade into obscurity.–C.W.
9. St. Vincent, “Smoking Section”
On the closer to her smoky, sparkling new album Masseduction, Annie Clark lets the mask drop. Ever the poised, perfectly-toned, delightfully brilliant auteur, it’s almost a relief to hear the woman behind St. Vincent give voice to the dark, despairing thoughts that dance through most of our heads on a regular basis. It’s also somewhat jarring, which is probably the intended impact, and an unexpected twist for an album closer. As she sings about stubbing herself out, or an omnipresent loneliness, or the desire to punish someone else for not anticipating these needs, the ominous piano melody behind her builds into a cinematic, fuzzed-out pinnacle of anguish, that culminates, at the top of it, in hope. “Smoking Section” is a masterful representation of self-loathing, saved at the last minute by a still-lingering optimism floated in on an organ riff and dreams of a new love. “It’s not the end” is her final determination, not a joyous proclamation, or a philosophical breakthrough, but a small, simple ember of resolve that refuses to blinker. In a year like 2017, that feels like the most honest sentiment a pop star could give us.–C.W.
8. Jason Isbell, “If We Were Vampires”
There are really only two ways out of a relationship: Divorce or death. Entire canons have been erected in monument to the former outcome. The same cannot be said for the latter. Sure, millions of writers have taken up the subject of death in song, but rarely in the context of relationships, and even more rarely with the same elegance and beauty shown by Jason Isbell’s incredible ballad “If We Were Vampires.”
In this tender, acoustic track Isbell recognizes that finality of his union. “Maybe we’ll get forty years together / But one day I’ll be gone / Or one day you’ll be gone.” Rather than wallow in this reality, however, Isbell relishes in it. The impermanence of life lends it poignancy. The urge to make the most out of every moment with a person you’ve given your heart to only comes with the knowledge that it won’t last forever. You could be a vampire and exult in your infinity, but then again, “Maybe time running out is a gift?”–C.R.
7. DJ Khaled Feat. Rihanna, “Wild Thoughts”
Though this song only ended up No. 2 on our Song Of The Summer ranking back in June, the overwhelming heat of Rihanna rapping over a sample of Santana’s “Maria Maria” was simply too wonderful and rare not to carry over into fall, spring — and probably next year. Of course, this combination is too strangely compelling to have come to us courtesy of anyone other than DJ Khaled. Occasionally, this jack of all trades (master of none) puts together a list of ingredients that wouldn’t occur to any other living being, and for that, he deserves credit. Bryson Tiller’s courtesy foil to Rihanna’s rip-roaring paen of desire is also duly noted and appreciated (except that godawful cremation line). But really, the core of this song is a ferocious, confident women comparing her capacity for fucking to an iconic football team, verbally dripping herself in diamonds, and converting all that energy into a bedroom-eyed, eminently quotable hook. While the world around reminded us that women are so frequently stripped of their sexual agency, Rihanna quietly wrote the playbook for how it will look, sound, and feel when a woman wants to fuck. Let Rihanna remind you, when that desire is present, there will be no doubts, just flames.–C.W.
6. Father John Misty, “Ballad Of The Dying Man”
What turned some people off from Pure Comedy, the most polarizing LP of 2017, was the perception that Josh Tillman was only interested in criticizing the many people who annoy him — religious people, political people, phony liberals on Twitter, music critics. The list goes on for another 200 entries. But it’s also possible to hear Pure Comedy (if you love or at least attempt to understand the album) as one man thoroughly exploring his own psyche, and finding himself in all of the things he professes to hate. This is most apparent in “Ballad Of The Dying Man,” a stinging (and oft-hilarious) rebuke of social-media culture done up in the guise of a gorgeous ’70s AM pop ballad. Is this song an anti-SJW diatribe that mocks a self-appointed do-gooder obsessed with correcting “the pretentious, ignorant voices that will go unchecked / the homophobes, hipsters, and one percent”? Or is it about a guy who, like many of us, is saturated in too much media, and worries that he’ll spend his final moments taking one last look at his newsfeed? Is it about them, or us? Speaking for myself, I’ll just say that I agree with Tillman when he says that we leave as clueless as we came.–S.H.
5. Lorde, “Liability”
In the first seconds of Lorde’s “Liability,” the second single from her sophomore LP Melodrama, there is a rustle of clothes, a light laugh, and she emits a quiet “Go for it.” Producer and co-writer Jack Antonoff mumbles a count off, before plunging into the piano chords that anchor the beautifully melancholy track. It’s a story of a romantic break-up, but also something so much more: A three-minute glimpse into the massive vulnerability that still surrounds Ella Yelich-O’Connor’s life, and the ways that fame has affected her mentally and socially. She retreats into the arms of the only love that she has yet to screw up, but ultimately pulls the lens back to reveal that she is alone, swaying to the music and stroking her own cheek.
In the oppressive heat of early June, I attended the Melodrama listening party in New York City, where a fan broke down in tears during the aforementioned verse. Lorde got up from her chair and embraced the crier, swaying along to the sparse piano lines and strained vocals, holding them until they calmed down. Although Lorde can’t hold every one of her fans physically, “Liability” does an unprecedented job of fostering comfort in the face of vulnerability.–Z.G.
4. The War On Drugs, “Thinking Of A Place”
In nearly every War On Drugs song, singer-songwriter Adam Granduciel is a man in search of something (or occasionally someone). He wanders bleak landscapes evoked by epic synth swooshes and desolate guitar solos, and tries to capture some elusive answer that may or may not actually exist. In “Thinking Of A Place,” the astonishing 11-minute centerpiece of A Deeper Understanding, Granduciel is on a vision quest to get to an imagined destination “that feels so very real” — is it home? Heaven? The embrace of a person who loves you? The song’s deliberate pace and dream-like vibe suggests that this is really a journey into self, the sort of deeply personal reckoning with one’s own demons that typically occurs at 3 a.m. with the lights out. Musically, what Granduciel is ultimately after is conveying overpowering melancholy in the form of a loose, lightly improvised heartland rock song. And that’s what “Thinking Of A Place” is — a sweet, pained feeling that drifts out of the speakers and into unsettled souls.–S.H.
3. Cardi B, “Bodak Yellow”
When Cardi B’s ascent to the top of the charts first began, “Bodak Yellow” was just a catchy song. By the end of the summer, it was an inescapable monster hit, known as much for its cultural ubiquity and celebrity co-signs as it was for its devastating beat and Cardi’s Kodak Black-jacking, braggadocios flow. Just how big was “Bodak Yellow” in 2017? Cardi’s line about getting a bag and fixing her teeth supposedly tripled her dentist’s business. It makes you wonder how Nicki Minaj’s gynecologist is doing after all these years.
“Bodak” was so big, it turned Cardi into a household name. I can’t think of a time a viral hit had that level of mainstream success. “Hot N—-“ never put Bobby Shmurda on late-night TV. “Watch Me” is better known for the ridiculous dances attached to it; your grandmother couldn’t tell you who Silento is (or was, as the progenitor of both the Whip and the Nae Nae has yet to put out another high-charting single or feature on any other rapper’s songs). Meanwhile, Cardi has been everywhere. Yes, much of her popularity comes from her relatable, ridiculous Love And Hip-Hop persona and funny Instagram videos. But “Bodak Yellow” stands on its own as well. It’s turned foes into fans, it’s turned fans into Stans, and it’s turned us all into true believers in that Cardi B magic.–A.W.
2. SZA ft. Travis Scott, “Love Galore”
No artist in 2017 has made the leap from online curiosity to platinum coated superstar quite like SZA, and that sudden and astronomical launch into superstardom was on a rocket of a hit in “Love Galore.” Sure, the track only peaked at a modest No. 32 on Billboard‘s Hot 100, but that’s beside the point. SZA existed as little more than an internet favorite before she hit pop radio with the Travis Scott-featured, sultry tale of SZA’s ode to a casual fling gone wrong — or right depending on one’s goal is in the situation.
While Travis’ yelps and yeahs add some character to the track, he only serves as a distraction from SZA’s hypnotic and lush vocals, much like the other guests on her marvelous album CTRL. She owns the track, and with her warm melodies and the decidedly modern and realistic take on dating, it’s easy to see why the song caught on and helped push TDE’s First Lady into another stratosphere. It’s an episode of Issa Rae’s phenomenal HBO series Insecure in sonic form, where the women are independent, blunt, stylish, having fun, and playing by the same rules as the men, whether they like it or not.–E.G.
1. Kesha, “Praying”
The plight of women who face sexual violence at the hands of powerful men has never been spotlighted the way it has in 2017. Of course, any living woman can let the still-uneducated know that this kind of abuse of power has been a daily reality for almost everyone in our gender since the dawn of time. Believe it or not, the men you work with, love with, laugh with, and live with are also capable of treating women around you like they are worthless. The silent, seething pain of this disconnect has found its voice in Kesha’s awe-inspiring comeback single, “Praying.”
A powerful piano ballad in place of her past autotuned party anthems, Kesha’s songwriting and her voice are front and center in this chill-inducing track dedicated, in no uncertain terms, to her tormentor. After a years-long legal battle to free herself from a professional relationship with Dr. Luke, the man she has accused of emotional and physical sexual abuse, the embattled singer finally opted to release music anyway, knowing it will still bear his stamp, and that legally, he will still profit off every move she makes.
The resulting rebuttal to that knowledge is a song that hopes for — no, demands — a kind of moral courage that it’s doubtful men who abuse their power in this way are capable of summoning. Still, to hear a woman at her lowest achieve empathy, grace, and forgiveness in a ballad that thunders and mourns like “Praying” is a living, breathing testament to female resilience. No one should have to be this strong, but every single day women around the world are, anyway. If this song invokes anything other than admiration and compassion in your heart, it’s time to hit your knees. Hard.–C.W.