Parameters for my Songs of the Year list:
- First and foremost, my list is biased to my preference in music. I honestly don’t have anything against any type of music (I’m not one of those “I like anything but country or metal” folks…but I don’t really listen to those genres as much; I would love suggestions, however), but these are where my tastes and what I was exposed to landed me.
- Songs landed on this list for my appreciation of their musicality, and/or their entertainment value, and/or their relations to strong memories of mine from 2016.
- I had to have either heard the song for the first time during 2016 or played the hell out of it during 2016.
- Popular music (like stuff you would hear on the radio) works to the disadvantage of the song in getting on the top ten list (sorry to “Dangerous Woman” and “Controlla”). It’s much more interesting to hear about music that you wouldn’t regularly be exposed to. There are exceptions to this rule, however, if the song truly is a jam.
- I only included studio recorded original tracks (sorry HAM4BEY, though you were definitely one of the best things that happened last year…I literally just typed the words and had to put it on…I’m literally listening to it right now…so, SO good; this JT and Chris Stapleton CMA performance also might have made the list too)
- The songs are listed in no rank besides 1-10 and 11-20…besides the first one.
My Top 10 Songs of 2017
Ultralight Beam – Kanye West
I contend that this was the best song of last year. Hands down.
Let’s start by saying that I am a bit frustrated by the backlash against Kanye West. Some argue that he has mental health problems. If this is the case, I don’t understand why we are giving him such a hard time when he needs help. Others say that it is an act and that he is being incendiary for attention. Well, news and media are driven by incendiary comments (lest we NEVER forget “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” #itneededtobesaid), so I have hard time turning away from Kanye for this reason as well. I also think it’s strange how we pick and choose whose bravado is acceptable and whose isn’t…but that is a whole other post (and an argument that is already brilliantly articulated by Rembert Browne here). His talent is still unparalleled when it comes to musicians from my generation. I stand that he will go down as one of the greatest producers of my age. I also stand and say that if Kanye were to die tomorrow, this song may go down as the best display of his talent. The story behind the song, told in most depth by longtime friend, producer, and “butler” Fonzworth Bentley, is compelling in and of itself. Almost in a fever dream, Kanye stayed up all hours pulling in artists (everyone from Kirk Franklin and The-Dream to Donnie Trumpet), with the help of Bentley (some fun facts include (1) Justin Bieber actually sang for the track but his portion was not included (2) Kelly Price’s portion was written by her and recorded in a studio across the country in a manner of hours and appears just as it was sent to the team (3) the song was originally intended to be the album’s outro). The name of the song comes from an experience that the Apostle Paul (where the “Pablo” in Life of Pablo comes from) has while heading to Damascus in the Book of Acts in the bible. Before following God, Paul was Saul and was a violent persecutor of Christians. On his trip, Saul was hit by a beam of light from heaven which strikes him blind for three days. Once his sight returned, he devoted his life to God. The ultralight beam, then, is a direct line from God to man on earth. A guiding light. In the song, Kanye is discussing that divine connection in his work and in what drives him. West was interviewed saying that Life of Pablo was a gospel album (I think this is a bit of a stretch, as I’ve never heard a gospel song with lyrics about “bleached a**holes” like one of the songs on this album…), but this song definitely sits firmly in the gospel tradition while at the same pulling in elements from electronic and hip-hop. Let’s be real though, Chance’s verse is really the highlight of this song. Lyrically, the verse is top notch and may be one of the best he has ever done. References to bible verses, Harriet Tubman, the show Martin and Arthur, Sia…fam, he rhymes with Pangea. PANGEA. Impressive that in what may be Kanye’s best song Kanye is actually featured so little. This song got me through a lot of tough times this year, and I know it will continue to do so in the future. Remember: “You can never go too far that you can’t get back home again.” An extended version of the prayer at the end of the song—called “Ultralight Prayer”—was released in March of last year on Kanye’s Soundcloud. Check it out for some additional vocals.
Pray You’ll Catch Me – Beyoncé
Spotify (unavailable) / YouTube (there is not a high quality version available, unfortunately)
I can’t even talk about the Grammys…it was unfair that Bey did not take home Best Album. That, however, is for another post. I will say that Lemonade was one of the first times that I actually looked at Beyoncé as an artist and not just a singer or maker of pop club bangers. The visual album definitely helped elevate the themes and mystique of this piece of art. The album was full of powerful hits but this song has always been the one that stuck with me. From the moment that I started the album and heard this, I knew that we were in for a more honest and vulnerable Beyoncé, who has always been known for keeping her personal life personal. The sentiment behind this song so emotionally complex…the singer loves the object her affection so much that she wants him to catch her cheating just so she can know that he cares. The yearning and emotion comes through the music so clearly. And the chord progression of the piano and vocals from “my lonely ear” to the finish of “walls of your world” (here starting at 0:36) may be one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard in music in a nice long while. The song was co-written by Beyoncé, Kevin Garrett, and the incredibly talented James Blake (who sings on “Forward”) and I definitely attribute some of the musical complexity and elegance of this song to Blake. Hand caps all around.
Don’t Touch My Hair – Solange Knowles
I am so very happy that Solange’s efforts this year were awarded with a Grammy (“Cranes in the Sky” won Best R&B Performance). I think A Seat at the Table was hands down one of the best albums of last year. Solange has the difficult job of distinguishing herself from Beyoncé. I can’t even begin to think about how stressful that is…but Solange is able to do it with grace, style, and elegance. There is a relaxed, almost atmospheric element to the music on this album and this song is no exception. I love the variety of sounds and styles used in this track. It has got horns, cowbell, strong bass, and synths and it bounces between this very stripped down R&B to what sounds like the intro to “Strawberry Letter 22” and then settles into the chilliest groove in the chorus. So good. The video is also bomb. Solange stands out from the other Knowles even in her kung-fu inspired dance break at 3:15. The visual at the end of the video where all of the dancers are in all white and the group slows down to half time for a bit is pretty sweet. I also LOVE the arm-back-and-forth-in-the-air-hand-waving dance move (best embodied at 3:03). Added to my repertoire. I can’t wait to see what else Solange comes up with.
Got the Love (feat. Jennifer Hartswick) – Big Gigantic
A friend of mine sent this to me simply saying “you will love this.” He knows me too well. This jam was on repeat for a lonnnng while. It has got a robust big band feel and perfectly merges it with electro-funk. When the beat drops you can’t help but move. This song is also fantastic for exercise…particularly if you are running late and need to get somewhere in a hurry.
Alexander Hamilton – Cast from “Hamilton”
I mean. What can I say? Lin-Miranda is our modern day Shakespeare and Hamilton: An American Musical may be his Hamlet or Macbeth. Still, I expect to see a lot more from Lin-Miranda and if Hamilton is any indication, we are definitely in for a treat. Now I have been a choir/acapella/show tunes person all my life, but I knew that Hamilton was something special when I saw how many of my friends who never liked musicals (and even made fun of me for liking them) got into this. There are so many great songs in the play but I would contend that it is best enjoyed all the way through so that you can experience Lin-Miranda’s brilliant storytelling through rap verse. I knew I was sold when I heard the opening song. I had never heard anything like it. The simple snapping and piano as a backdrop leading up to the huge chords at the end of the track. And the wordsmithing! The sheer lyricism is what really makes the play stand out. If you haven’t listened yet, get with it. You won’t regret it.
Bass Song – Eryn Allen Kane
I am not sure how I discovered Eryn Allen Kane but I need her to immediately drop a full album. She has such a sexy and powerful voice. She is also a brilliant arranger. The composition of this song is stellar. It builds with reigned intensity, starting with sweet harmonies and a bassline through to 1:24 when you hear the horns come in full force and take over. I think the syncopation of the different elements of the song is what really drives the track forward. I love the classical influence that her music carries. There also something about Kane’s articulation of “Lies like spring water you drink from every night” with that guitar at 2:06 that gives goosebumps every time.
Smoke Break (feat. Future) – Chance the Rapper
The country has fallen in love with Chance this year and he deserves all credit (and his three Grammys). From his Magnificent Coloring World Tour, using his privilege to get young people to go out and vote after a free concert, his feature on the opening song of Kanye’s album and working on a number of the songs, and appearances on SNL, Chance has done so much in so little time. Lest we not forget that he has changed the music industry by being the first artist to be nominated for Grammy off of a solely streaming record. In the words of Hamilton, “the world will never be the same.” I think of all the songs on this album, this one does not get the love that it deserves (next on that list would be “How Great”). I love the sentiment of it…lets slow the crazy things in the world down for a second and just chill with one another. Additionally, “Truth being told, we used to movies and bowl / We used to Netflix and roll” is one of my favorite lyrics of the year.
Alaska – Maggie Rogers
Last year, a video featuring a somewhat downplayed and soft spoken young woman stepping up to present her music to Pharrell Williams in a master’s class at NYU Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music went viral. To the average watcher, one might assume that the music that was to come out of the speakers was going to be run-of-the-mill or even downright unimpressive. Wrong. In fact, it was so good that the shock that Pharrell expressed helped catapult the video to viral status (not just his shock, the song in and of itself was amazing, but “watch Pharrell’s reaction to this” didn’t hurt the link headline). Maggie Rogers describes her music as an influence of folk and electronic, fusing together sounds that she likes and hears every day. She is also a self-proclaimed synesthetic, combining colors and visuals in her music. He went on to describe her music as nothing he had heard before. I agree. There is a fullness, a soulfulness that really speaks to me in this track. When I moved back to Chicago at the end of the summer of 2016, it was this song that buoyed me during that transition. There is something all-enveloping and homey about the harmonies that let me know that everything was going to be okay. That this was a new beginning for which I should be excited. Rogers EP, Now that the Light is Fading, comes out this Thursday.
Gooey – Glass Animals
Well, it had to come down to boy eventually. I have a tendency to relegate the people I date to a particular song because of events related to the boy and the song. He showed me this song on the first date we went on that I decided that I really liked him (our third)…and I think it stuck in my mind as his song because with the little I knew about him I would have never expected him to have liked this kind of jam. I guess the lesson here is not to judge or make assumptions. He was, and still is, full of surprises (and has phenomenal taste in music; praise I do not give lightly).
The song is what it claims to be—gooey. The beat and overall tone of the song is so funky and slick and…well…gooey (to be clear, I am describing the song, not the boy). The video is BIZARRE, but, again, fits the song perfectly. Definitely one to add to your “chill” playlist.
If you’re reading this, you know who you are and I hope you are well, buddy. Thanks for the tune, and helping to make my year special.
They Know – Luke Christopher
I don’t know how I found this song, but I am so glad that I did. The vibe of this song harkens back to early 00s hip-hop to me, when it was okay to be poppy and the music was more driven by instruments and not synths. While Luke Christopher is not the best rapper I have ever heard, he does the song justice. I am also not sure who the vocalist is who is featured on the hook, but I like her voice as well. This was probably my favorite video of the year. I liked the concept of seeing Luke literally through the eyes of the girl is wooing and talking to. They even included the blinks! I also find him adorable (and yes, I know he’s only like 23…).
11 – 20
Come Down – Anderson .Paak
I said in a previous post that if Chance wasn’t nominated for Best New Artist, this guy would have taken it hands down. The lyrics, the drum beat. All of it.
VRY BLK – Jamila Woods
My dear, sweet Jamila! I loved your album. This song was my favorite by far. I loved the use of the motif of hand games rhymes to be a backbone of the song. Brilliant.
Drum Machine – Big Grams
IF YOU HEAR THIS AND ARE NOT HYPE AF TWERKING AROUND THE ROOM, YOU HAVE NO SOUL!
Gold – Kiiara
I know this song was a commercial hit. So sue me. But it’s sooooo good. Simple and repetitive even, but the groove is sold, like its name.
Let Me Love You (feat. Lil’ Wayne) – Ariana Grande
“Dangerous Woman” may be the best song that Ariana has created, but this was my real jam off this album. I played the life out of this song.
Pray to God (Mike Pickering Hacienda Remix feat. Haim) – Calvin Harris
I really tried to get into this original song but couldn’t until I heard this remix. I think this is the best club track I heard all year.
Magnets (feat. Lorde) – Disclosure
An incredibly talented group, Disclosure has gotten no real love since “Latch” which featured whatshisnamenotrelevant. Never been crazy about Lorde, but this pairing was to die for.
Cake by the Ocean – DNCE
While I said that “Gold” by Kiiara was the best song of the summer, this definitely was THE song of the summer. Maybe it’s “ocean” in the title, but this song screams “get to the beach and dance in the sun, NOW”
All Caught Up (feat. Tinashe) – GTA
Looking forward to more from GTA. Tinashe has also been racking up some great features recently (save the Britney one.)
All I Ask – Adele
I mean, the woman had to make the list. While she is an incredible vocalist, overall I wasn’t impressed by this album. This song though, I thought, was a dazzling love song.