Despite what you may have been told by disgruntled adults over Thanksgiving dinner, 2017 was a great year for music, from Kendrick Lamar, who topped the year-end album chart with “DAMN.,” to smaller triumphs with no hope of going platinum or playing an arena.
This playlist is one critic’s look back at the year
It was, topped by a track from Lamar’s latest masterpiece and featuring a handful of recordings from the local scene. The song that gave Lamar his first chart-topping entry on the Billboard Hot 100 also made the list. It’s just a little further down the page.
DON’T MISS: Phoenix Rock Lottery: 25 musicians split into 5 bands on Jan. 27
1. Kendrick Lamar, “DNA.”
The most compelling voice in modern hip-hop had just released “DAMN.” when he chose “DNA.” as the opening song of his headlining set at Coachella. And it’s easy enough to hear what made this hip-hop manifesto feel like such a focus track.
For one, there’s the ferocious nature of his rapping over a hypnotic Mike WiLL Made-It beat. Or as Lamar says, “I just win again, then win again / Like Wimbledon, I serve.” And the free-flowing lyrics do a brilliant job of merging the political and personal while weighing in on what it means to be a black American in Donald Trump’s America with “power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA.”
The second verse is a breathless flurry of impassioned lyrics, set up by the idiot-speak of Geraldo Rivera telling Fox News viewers, “This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years.” Lamar fires back with “Tell me somethin’ / You mothaf—kers can’t tell me nothin’ / I’d rather die than to listen to you.”
2. St. Vincent, “Pills”
This “Masseduction” single doesn’t sound a thing like what the Who were doing on “The Who Sell Out.” But it does share that album’s winking cultural appropriation of the advertising jingle.
As Clark told Pitchfork, she’d taken a sleeping pill and as she was popping it into her mouth, “I was like, [sings] ‘Do-do-do, do-do-do, pills, pills, pills, every day of the week — oh, maybe that’s so jingle-y that it’s good.’ Just using that language of advertising.”
Things To Do app: Get the best in events, dining and travel right on your device
Consider the nagging chorus hook with which she sets the tone, as sung by Cara Delevingne: “Pills to wake, pills to sleep / Pills, pills, pills every day of the week / Pills to walk, pills to think / Pills, pills, pills for the family.”
But she really hits her stride here on the atmospheric, soulful coda, signing off with “Come all you children, come out to play / Everyone you love will all go away” before passing the spotlight to Kamasi Washington, who adds some melancholy saxophone.
3. Selena Gomez, ‘Bad Liar’
Gomez has grown into one of the sexiest voices on the mainstream-pop scene, a near-whispered pout that’s perfect for telling a crush, “In my room, there’s a king-size space / Bigger than it used to be / If you want, you can rent that space / Call me an amenity.”
And that’s important on a track like this, where she not only borrows a bassline from a classic Talking Heads song (“Psycho Killer” of all things) but slips in a lyrical reference to the Trojan War (“Just like the Battle of Troy, there’s nothing subtle here”).
David Byrne of Talking Heads responded with a Tweet that read, “I really like the song…and her performance too.” OK, yes, he used to seem more eloquent. The point remains, he likes it.
4. Shabazz Palaces featuring Thaddilac, ‘Shine a Light’
When you start with a sample as deeply soulful as the richly orchestrated snatch of Dee Dee Sharp’s “I Really Love You,” you’ve already won my vote.
Rather than sample Sharp’s vocal performance, though, these jazz-rap heroes layer their own vocal melody over the string part, guest vocalist Thaddilac singing, “Shine a light on the fake / This way my peeps can have it all” in an aching falsetto.
It’s a breathtaking backdrop for Ishmael Butler’s words, which flow freely, unhampered by linear thinking. “Street profit / Sweets geeked off it,” Butler begins, “Seek profit / Cook styles, eat off it / Think unique, tyres squeak, jewels blink / Defy critique, high peaks, comped suites / She said I’m too deep, then she fell asleep.”
5. Hurray for the Riff Raff, “Pa’Lante”
The title is Latin American slang for moving forward, and as this emotional ballad exploring the pain that comes with cultural assimilation arrives at its triumphant climax, Alynda Segarra begins to punctuate her every thought with a cry of “Pa’Lante,”
It’s a life-affirming ending to a song that begins on a far more dispirited note over solemn piano chords. “Oh, I just want to go to work and get back home and be something,” she sings. “I just want to fall in line and do my time and be something / Oh, I just want to prove my worth on the planet Earth and be something.”
She even samples a reading of Pedro Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary” as she heads into that final act, addressing her parents and “all who came before,” including “all who lost their pride,” in a soulful celebration of her Puerto Rican heritage.
6. Father John Misty, “Ballad of the Dying Man”
The Randy Newman of his generation turns his darkly comic eye for detail on the Dying Man, a self-important know-it-all who wonders on his deathbed if he’s “successfully beaten back the rising tide of idiots, dilettantes and fools on his watch.”
That wicked sense of humor really shines on verse two, where he sings, “So says the dying man, ‘Once I’m in the box / Just think of all the overrated hacks running amok / And all the pretentious, ignorant voices that will go unchecked / The homophobes, hipsters and one percent’ / The false feminists he’d managed to detect / Oh who will critique them once he’s left?”
It helps that the music is gorgeous, a post-Beatles chamber-pop ballad with obvious roots in the music of the early ’70s topped by a soulfully sardonic vocal.
7. Kamaiyah, “Build You Up”
It’s a shame this Oakland rapper’s records never seem to get the airplay they deserve because this could have been the feel-good single of the summer, from the upbeat positivity of its empowering lyrics – “You just need someone to come and build you up” (and that someone is you) – to the old-school hip-hop flavor of the groove itself.
It’s even built on what appears to be a pitched-down sample of the Tony Toni Tone hit, “Feels Good.” “I wanted to make to a self-love anthem for women,” Kamaiyah has said, “‘cause I feel like there’s none anymore.”
As she sings at the end of the opening verse, “Say ‘I gotta love me’ / Say ‘I gotta trust me’ / Say ‘I gotta give myself some pride’ / Say ‘I gotta hug me.’ ”
8. Portugal. The Man, “Live in the Moment”
There’s a glam-rocking swagger to “Live in the Moment,” the single that followed their mainstream breakthrough with the equally contagious “Feel it Still.”
Depending on how old you are, the beat will either make you think of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll” or Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” (maybe both). But this song has a better hook than either of those classics, a singalong chorus encouraging listeners to live in the moment because when you’re gone? “Goodbye, so long, farewell.”
John Gourley hits his stride here on a second verse that feels inspired by current events without getting overly topical. “My home is a girl who can’t wait for time to tell,” he sings. “God only knows we don’t read history / When your family swinging from the branches of a tree / God only knows we don’t need ghost stories.”
9. The Yes Masters, “Fire Engine Green”
Kurt Bloch did a masterful job of avoiding the fame and fortune that seemed to plague so many of his neighbors when Seattle emerged as the city most likely to launch a revolution in the post-Nirvana ’90s. And he did it while tearing it up on guitar in two of that scene’s most inspired underdogs, the Young Fresh Fellows and Fastbacks.
“Fire Engine Green” could be a great lost Fastbacks track, a contagious explosion of effervescent pop hooks built on a series of timeless guitar licks that could not sound more like “something Kurt Bloch would have written.”
And the loopy lyricism only adds to the substantial charms of this recording. Take the chorus hook, on which he sings, “The sky it turned to fire engine green / I know you know exactly what I mean.” Of course we do.
10. Vince Staples, “Bagbak”
The first track Staples shared from “Big Fish Theory” found him rapping with conviction, weighing in on life in Trump’s America over an insistent yet hypnotic Detroit techno loop. After setting the scene with a self-mythologizing first verse sent out to his “future baby mama,” Staples turns increasingly political.
As he raps in verse two, after dropping a line about a broken prison system, “We need Tamikas and Shaniquas in that Oval Office / Obama ain’t enough for me, we only getting started / The next Bill Gates can be on Section 8 up in the projects/ So ‘til they love my dark skin / B****, I’m goin’ all in.”
11. Juliana Hatfield, “Wonder Why”
This is the second track she shared from “Pussycat,” an album she says came together quickly after Trump’s election.
Unlike the previous song, where she called on her fellow Americans to set aside their differences and recognize their shared humanity, “Wonder Why” finds her escaping into childhood memories, wondering why her corduroys were always light blue.
In an interview with Consequence of Sound, she talked about channeling AM pop radio hits of the ’70s. “It’s a little bit ELO or something. Not intentionally but just because that era and its music and feeling is really ingrained in my psyche.” The distorted guitar sound, though, is more likely to trigger nostalgia for her own work from the early ’90s.
12. Bash & Pop, “Never Wanted to Know”
This is exactly the sort of rough-and-tumble rock and roll filtered through power-pop songcraft that had a generation of outsiders falling hard for the Replacements back when bassist Tommy Stinson was doggedly drinking his way through his teens at the eye of a rock-and-roll hurricane.
It even hangs its chorus on the sort of lyric critics used to cite as further proof of Paul Westerberg’s God-given lyrical genius, only this time, the lyrics were written by Stinson.
“Now you’re trying to forget everything you never wanted to know,” Stinson wails on the singalong chorus of a song with passing references to a dead kid lying in the street on CNN and another kid’s dad coming home in the bag.
13. Weird Radicals, “Human Being”
These locals have always been shooting for timeless, and they’ve hit the mark on more than one occasion.
But this is on a whole new level, a bittersweet rocker with strings and a singalong chorus that sounds a bit like something Jeff Lynne would have written and then set aside because he couldn’t tell if it was better suited to Traveling Wilburys or Roy Orbison’s “Mystery Girl.”
It’s also blessed with Andrew Cameron Cline’s most introspective, universal lyrics yet, especially that candy-coated mantra of a chorus hook, where Cline sings, “All that I / Really want / Is to be / Beautiful / I don’t care / What it costs / I only want to be happy.”
14. Japanese Breakfast, “Boyish”
They usher you into this bittersweet ballad with the beat Phil Spector would have used and follow through with Michelle Zauner’s pining delivery of the sort of melody the Brill Building was so revered for cranking out.
Zauner says she and prouder Craig Hendrix were shooting for a “sort of grandiose Roy Orbison-esque ballad” with “big arrangements, lots of harmonies and synth strings, to create a really sweeping, melancholic effect that mirrored the nature of the lyrics.”
“Boyish” definitely has the haunted quality of Orbison’s best work with lush synth orchestration supporting her vocal on the melancholy chorus, where she tells her clearly ineffectual lover, “I can’t get you off my mind. I can’t get you off in general/So here we are/We’re just two losers/I want you and you want something more beautiful.”
15. Everything Is Recorded feat. Sampha, ‘Close But Not Quite’
XL Records founder Richard Russell built this track, the first we heard from his new project, on a deeply soulful Curtis Mayfield sample, the soul legend bringing his trembling falsetto to bear on a richly orchestrated chorus hook.
Most singers wouldn’t want to have to measure up to Mayfield. But as U.K. soul sensation Sampha made more than abundantly clear on “Process,” he is not most singers. Sampha effortlessly rises to the challenge here with a vocal that’s almost as vulnerable as Mayfield’s, especially when he slips into his own falsetto.
It’s a stunning pairing that breathes new life into a timeless melody Mayfield laid to tape on “The Makings of You,” released in 1970, 18 years before Sampha was born.
16. Kelela, “LMK”
This soulful slow jam brings the drama like Madonna in the ‘80s with a hint of ’90s R&B while Kelela makes a case for casual sex, shrugging off her latest conquest with “Did you think you’re my ride home, baby? ‘Cause my girls are parked behind.”
Kelela told Pitchfork, “I just want to live in a world where I can tell a guy, ‘This is the deal: I really want this. I really want you. But it’s also not that deep.’ It’s hard for men to think that a woman is capable of just wanting to get laid without being a ho.”
And the swagger she brings to the mix is as commanding as it is contagious, constantly reminding him, “it ain’t that deep” and “no one’s tryin’ to settle down.” And that high note she hits at the end is golden.
17. Father John Misty, “Pure Comedy”
Josh Tillman weighs in on the “miracle of birth” as the first step in an existential comedy of errors, getting in swipes at religious hypocrisy, man’s legacy of building fortunes based on poisoning his offspring and “these goons they elected to rule them.”
It’s a darkly comic ride that somehow manages to pull out of a final verse about death with a line that’s either one more spoonful of futility or something oddly life-affirming: “I hate to say it, but each other’s all we got.”
It’s a brilliant effort, fleshing out the story with a chamber-pop arrangement topped by a vocal performance that couldn’t be more soulful. And that can’t be easy when you’re working through a line about how “half of us are periodically iron deficient.”
18. Genre, “A Change Is Gonna Come”
In case you’re wondering if these local rockers know they stole the title of a Sam Cooke classic, I direct you to the line, “Hey Sam, I hope you don’t mind.” We’ll never know if he’d have minded, but the songs do share a sense of optimism in the face of hard times.
There’s just more dark humor in the Genre song, which opens with “When David Bowie died, I couldn’t cry ’cause he was pretty old” and references the JFK assassination and John Lennon’s murder before moving on to the state our union with “Here we are, on the brink of war.”
So where’s that sense of optimism? In the oft-repeated mantra of “A change is gonna come,” as what sounds like it could be a dozen guitars churn away through a blanket of fuzz, arriving at an oddly soothing anthem for our troubled times.
19. Paul Tabachneck, “New America”
Tabachneck mines a sense of dread here that’s equal parts “OK Computer” and Dylan writing “Ballad of a Thin Man” for the Beatles. The song creeps along at an ominous snail’s pace as the singer weighs in on these turbulent times with “Can’t put the beer back in the bottle / Can’t put the dumb back in your mouth.”
The words get more specific as he moves to the chorus, singing, “We’re all braced for all the greatness yet to come / We are living in the New America.”
The singer says, “I don’t dare to think anybody listens to this song and changes their mind, any more than I ever thought writing someone who didn’t love me back a song would make them change their minds, but I needed to put something out there. I needed the catharsis.”
20. Kendrick Lamar, “HUMBLE.”
Lamar’s first hit to top the Billboard Hot 100, “HUMBLE.” was produced by Mike WiLL Made-It, who supplies the baddest bass piano loop in history while Lamar instructs the competition to “sit down, be humble” with no sign that he would ever think to heed his own advice.
Among his more memorable boasts? “If I quit this season, still will be the greatest,” “Still will take you down right on your mama’s couch in polo socks” and “Obama just paged me,” adding “I stay modest ‘bout it.” There’s a playfulness to Kendrick’s boasting here but not enough to be mistaken for false modesty.
It helps that the beat is just as bold. In an interview with NPR, the track’s producer said, “I knew that beat was going to capture a moment. It just felt real urgent.”
21. Small Leaks Sink Ships, “Dancing Devil”
“Dancing Devil” is a haunting treatise on temptation built on electronic loops with a singalong chorus of “Here in the crops of the Garden of Eden, you’re a fool,” using biblical imagery to reflect on mankind’s tendency to make a mess of everything and blame it on a devil.
As London VanRooy told Vortex, this song is “about falling victim to our own temptations and wanting to blame something else for it.”
The sound is odd, experimental pop. “At the time,” VanRooy told Vortex, “we were experimenting with a ton of digital beats and samples, resulting in a more minimal, high-energy track.”
22. Spoon, “I Ain’t the One”
There’s a bleary-eyed soul vibe to this atmospheric ballad, in which Britt Daniel insists he “ain’t the one” in a wounded rasp to the mournful backdrop of a Wurlitzer and subtle hints of orchestration.
Even when drummer Jim Eno threatens to shake up the mood after more than two minutes of drum-free pathos, the atmosphere remains the same. And then the drums recede again, crashing in later for maximum impact.
That less-is-more approach to arranging a song has served Spoon well throughout the years and they’ve only gotten better at knowing what to hold back until later.
23. Lil Uzi Vert, “XO Tour Llif3”
This brooding hip-hop track is a slow-burning emo-rap anthem that’s somehow as contagious as it is depressing, setting the tone for the chorus with “I don’t really care if you cry” before bottoming out on an Auto-tuned mantra of “Push me to the edge / All my friends are dead.”
Inspired by Uzi’s relationship issues with a former girlfriend as well as his struggles with substance abuse, it’s among the more emotionally jarring records of the year, at one point rhyming “She say I’m insane” with “I might blow my brain out.” And it clearly touched a nerve, enough to give Uzi the five-times-platinum breakout he’s been working towards since Soundcloud made him famous.
24. Queens of the Stone Age, “The Evil Has Landed”
The fact that Josh Homme was revealed to be, at best, a monster when he kicked that camera into Chelsea Lauren’s face at a holiday concert makes it feel wrong to include this record. But although I do think less of him, I’ve always done my best to separate the failings of the artist from the art itself.
And these stoner-rock sensations are in top form here, underscoring a majestic fuzz-guitar riff with pulsating bass and a Bonham-esque beat that grooves more than it rocks — at least until they shift gears on the punkish outro.
It’s a sexy track that makes the most of Josh Homme’s upper register as he sets the scene with talk of “going on a living spree,” slipping into falsetto like a young Mick Jagger on the wordless chorus hook.
25. Future, “Mask Off”
This is the Atlanta rapper’s highest-charting single yet, an atmospheric ballad that creeps along to the sound of a hypnotic flute loop backed by speaker-shaking bass notes as he shares his tales of money, crime and drugs.
Future kicks off the chant-along chorus with “Percosets, molly, Percosets” and boasts about his rise “from food stamps to a whole ‘nother domain” with a delivery that’s equal parts swagger and cold-hearted shrug. There is a difference, right?
Getting back to that flute, though, it was sampled by producer Metro Boomin’ from “Selma,” a ’70s musical based on the civil rights movement and the life of Martin Luther King.
26. Homeshake, “Every Single Thing”
This is one smooth-sailing yacht-rock revival with Peter Sagar laying some yearning falsetto down over a rubbery bass groove and a bittersweet chord progression I am pretty sure I’ve heard before, all in service to a timeless pop hook.
And then, you have the lyrics, drawing you in with “Every single thing that I shouldn’t do seems to come so natural / I don’t know about you.”
He’s lost in his own daydream, unable to have a normal conversation with the woman who tries to shake him into consciousness at the top of the track with “Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, are you even paying attention to me right now?” Of course he isn’t. Not with this chorus hook stuck in his head.
27. Ted Leo, “Can’t Go Back”
He sets the scene here with a melancholy “Moonlight shattered on this stretch of sea/ How many times I stood here mapping things out differently.” But rather than give in to that despair, the music favors Motown-flavored accents topped by one of Leo’s most contagious melodies as he resigns himself to the idea that he can’t go back (perhaps to when more music felt like this).
That same dichotomy has yielded countless classic pop songs through the years and this is no exception. There’s even a spirited call-and-response on the title line between Leo and guest vocalist Jean Grae that sounds like it came from a really good day at the Brill Building.
28. N.E.R.D. & Rihanna, “Lemon”
The first track they shared from their first new release since 2010, with a vocal assist from Rihanna, begins with some friendly advice from Pharrell: “The truth will set you free / But first, it’ll piss you off.”
It that suggests a more socially relevant track than “Everyone Nose (All the Girls Standing in the Line for the Bathroom),” that’s exactly what this represents.
But there’s also a shout-out to bath salts, a contagious groove and a fun-loving chorus of “Bouncin’ around, bouncin’ around, bouncin’.” As for Rihanna, she raps with conviction and swagger, loose-rhyming Lebron and the Fonz, to which the only sane response is “Ayyy.”
29. Miguel, “Told You So”
Miguel’s falsetto is the perfect instrument to put across this contagious electro-funk sex jam, managing to channel ’80s Prince and Michael Jackson in the same intoxicating breath.
The video features him dancing to the squelchy groove as missiles are being tested in the desert, interspersed with images of protests, tanks and American flags.
But the song itself, the second track he shared from “War + Leisure,” would appear to be a little more concerned with the first half of the “Make Love, Not War” slogan, reminding us that sometimes missiles are just metaphors.
30. Run the Jewels, “Thursday in the Danger Room”
Riding an ominous, slow-rolling synth groove, with Kamasi Washington adding melancholy jazz sax, Killer Mike and El-P take turns sharing stories of the friends they’ve lost to death.
In the opening verse, El-P tells us, “Life is a journey, to live is to worry / To love is to lose your damn mind / But living’s a blessing so I am not stressing / ‘Cause some of my friends ain’t survived.”
Killer Mike starts his verse dropping biblical wisdom: “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for the tooth / Will leave us all mumbling and blind.” But where this track hits hardest is when they show their sentimental side on the bittersweet chorus (“I guess I say you left too soon / But the truth is that you never left / ‘Cause I never let myself forget”).
31. EMA, “Aryan Nation”
This proved a bracing introduction to Erika M. Anderson’s new album, “Exile in the Outer Ring,” drawing you in with the opening line, “Cutting life with a razor’s edge / When you can’t sleep but still go to bed,” sung to the chug of guitars that match Anderson’s vocals as the track gets noisier and more cathartic.
It’s a political song, as the title suggests, that addresses the factors that can shape a person’s vote – a life with no real hope of getting better, for instance – with what sounds like empathy. And that’s what Anderson intended.
“I don’t look down on, or laugh at, serious issues such as poverty or drug problems,” she says. “I believe your situations are real, your pain is real. I’m not here to ridicule or dismiss you. But as a person who came from heartland America, I also believe that there is another way than directing your anger at those who often have less power than you. Don’t let your discontent or your patriotism be exploited.”
32. St. Vincent, “Los Ageless”
The second single from “Masseduction” hits the dance floor with a vengeance. And by “vengeance,” I mean actual vengeance. It’s a bitter pill to swallow while doing the robot but she makes it worth your while with a cynical spin on a world where “The Los Ageless hang out by the bar / Burn the pages of unwritten memoirs.”
By the time the chorus takes you higher, though, it’s clear that she’s hating the city because it’s where she fooled around and fell in love. “How can anybody have you and lose you?,” she pleads. “And not lose their minds too.”
As for the groove, this is disco as Bowie explored the vibe on “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps),” complete with explosive yet abstract guitar from Clark herself, among the more heroic guitarists to emerge this century.
34. Frank Ocean, “Chanel”
This tender, emotional ballad was the first we’d heard from Ocean since 2016’s “Blonde,” a welcome return that effortlessly played to Ocean’s strengths while expanding the scope of his sound.
He grabs your attention right out of the gate with a soulful delivery of “My guy pretty like a girl” and follows through with a narrative full of at times cryptic yet compelling details – singing some lines, rapping others – before letting his falsetto have its way with an aching chorus hook of “I see both sides like Chanel.”
34. Ty Segall, “Black Magick”
This track from Segall’s “Sentimental Goblin” EP is a hazy psychedelic daydream whose languid guitars suggest a late-night session drifting into early morning as he waltzes through the sleepy-headed verses before abruptly shifting into stately 4/4 to brilliant effect on a chorus that promises, “Black magick will save us all.”
If the Rolling Stones had recruited Syd Barrett instead of Mick Taylor, who’s to say what would have happened? Maybe something quite like this.
35. Pistoleros, “Did You Wake Up All Alone”
After setting the tone with a spooky, minimal guitar arpeggio filtered through just the right mixture of reverb and tremolo, Lawrence Zubia steps to the mic and gives his lower register the wheel for an ominous “Did you wake up all alone? Did you think that I’d be home? Was the light on in the hall? Did you really think I’d call.”
He’s never sung that low before and the payoff is huge on this highlight of “Silver” while lyrically Zubia channels the economy of classic country lyrics, working that straight-shooting realness for maximum impact in a song that’s not remotely country.
Then, he takes it up an octave with the raspy soulfulness that’s marked him as one of the Valley’s most inspired vocalists for more than 20 years.
36. No Volcano, “Take My Chances”
Among the many highlights of the local rockers’ latest album, “Dead Horse Power,” “Take My Chances” is a guitar-driven driven indie-rock gem boasting some of the more contagious guitar lines you had any hope of hearing in 2017.
There’s also piano and Beatlesque harmonies fleshing things out on the bridge, where guitarist Jim Andreas can’t seem to decide if he’s “feelin’ alright” or “not feelin’ alright.” And who among us can’t relate to that?
The arrangement makes excellent use of dynamics, pulling back at the top each verse to give Andreas more room to deliver his lines, which he does with a bittersweet tone that definitely suit the lyrics. “I’m not lookin’ for the cure,” the song begins. “I’m not afraid of disease anymore.”
37. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, “An Intention”
This is the first track Smith shared from a concept album called “The Kid,” a two-record set on which each of the four vinyl sides is devoted to a different chapter on the road “from birth to self-awareness to the forging of one’s individual identity to old age and death.”
This is from the first side, and the mood is definitely heavier and more dramatic than the type of music one might ordinarily associate with newborns. But that means it’s probably closer in spirit to what this world must feel like to a baby.
As the press release explains: “The first side takes us through the confused astonishment of a newborn, unaware of itself, existing in an unwitting nirvana. Smith’s music has always woven a youthful thread befitting of the aforementioned subject.
38. The National, “Carin at the Liquor Store”
This melancholy gem should speak directly to anyone with any interest whatsoever in what these guys have been doing all along.
After setting the tone with a sad but stately intro on piano, the spotlight shifts to Matt Berninger’s weary baritone, the grit in his vocal breaking in all the right places to underscore the poignancy as he sings of forgone conclusions and “walking around like I was the one who found dead John Cheever in the house of love.”
I don’t know what that means but it sounds poignant and that is what matters.
39. The Downtown Boys, ‘A Wall’
These Rhode Island punks were born to rage against the Trump administration’s fabled border wall, which they do with conviction to spare on an explosive track produced by Fugazi’s John Picciotto that’s all forward momentum, Victoria Ruiz shouting “A wall is a wall / A wall is just a wall / And nothing more at all.”
The implication, of course, is that it’s one more artificial boundary when we should be building bridges. See, this is wy punk was invented.
The track is driven by a throbbing post-punk bassline — and horns! — as Ruiz sneers the words with righteous indignation, demanding to know, “Am I under arrest? And do I have the right?” after leading her bandmates in a chant of “You can’t pull the plug on us.” Meanwhile, group members her punctuate her thoughts with well-placed expletives.
40. Injury Reserve, “North Pole”
This is the first track the formerly local hip-hop trailblazers shared from “Drive It Like It’s Stolen,” the EP they dropped at the end of September. And in a move that speaks well to the evolution of their artistry, it doesn’t sound a thing like their previous singles, taking a far more contemplative journey.
In an interview with Pigeons & Planes, Parker Corey explained that the North Pole is “the name we gave to our new house after moving to Los Angeles. It came from the location being so far north and on a weirdly Christmas themed street.
“But as we were working on this song, it seemed to take on an interesting juxtaposition between the ‘good tidings’ that come to mind when you think of ‘the north pole’ and the cold isolation of it as real, physical location in the middle of the Arctic.”
That sense of isolation definitely translates in the downtempo jazz vibe and reflective delivery, especially Stepa J Groggs on an opening verse that ends with “I can’t be the only one that’s feelin’ lost, right?” Then it fades on a pitch-shifted vocal hook that sounds like a melancholy robot lamenting his life in the North Pole.
41. Sampha, “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”
Spoiler alert: There’s a vulnerability to the trembling delivery with which he finishes the line “No one knows me like the piano” with “in my mother’s home” that may require tissues and/or ice cream
This song broke my heart before I’d even read that most of the songs on “Process” were written as the 28-year-old was processing the grief of having lost his mom to cancer in 2015. She was still alive when he wrote this one, though. He even got to play it for her once before she died.
But you can hear him bracing for the loss he knew was just around the bend while finding comfort in thoughts of his mother’s piano and the role it played in shaping who he is today.
42. Superchunk, “I Got Cut”
After setting the tone for their first release in four years with a hail of feedback, the indie legends follow through with the power-chord punch of a stop-start guitar riff that makes you wonder if there’s any point in deciding if it’s power-pop, garage-rock, Buzzcocks-flavored punk or a refreshing combination of the three.
I think I’ll go with “a refreshing combination of the three.”
Mac McCaughan says the single was inspired by “images like the photograph of our current president surrounded by a bunch of other ancient white guys, all smiling as they took away access to reproductive health care for women all over the world.”
On the positive side, McCaughan says, “the song is also inspired by shows of unity like the Women’s March on Washington in January. It’s about freedom of choice. It’s about healing psychic and physical wounds and staying free. It’s about getting out of the way to make room for people younger and more enlightened than ourselves.”
43. Nilüfer Yanya, “Baby Luv”
The stripped-down, acoustic-guitar-driven pulse of the opening verse feels a bit like she’s channeling Cat Power’s “You Are Free” album. But the voice is distinctly her own. And as the song takes on more textures (in the form of ethereal synths), it leaves that first impression in the dust (at least until it’s made you hit “repeat”).
The singer was quoted as saying this track is about “suppressing your feelings and not being able to feel the normal things like joy and pain.”
Those feelings definitely seep in through the cracks in her delivery, though, especially when she slips into her upper register on the opening line, “So don’t look so surprised when I know where you’ve been” or when she asks, repeatedly, “Do you like pain?”
Of course, that doesn’t stop her from pleading, “Call me sometimes.” That dichotomy between knowing this person is bad for you and desperately hoping the phone rings may be where this single really hits it stride and resonates with anyone who’s ever been in that position.
44. Upsahl, “Digital Papers”
I was already totally on board with this local release before it even hit those crazy, psychedelic backwards-tape effects on the fadeout. But that pushed it over the edge.
A dreamy waltztime ballad with a soaring chorus hook, it boasts an unexpected change-up in Upsahl’s delivery where she shifts into semi-rapped lyrics that spill out with total conviction as she conjures images of “coffee cups filled with hypocrisy.”
The title refers to the Digital Age and “and how it has ultimately caused a lack of originality in the younger generations because we are all influenced by media,” Upsahl explains. “I wrote the song according to this visual I had in my mind that I eventually wanted to create a music video with. The video that I had literally been directing in my mind aligned really well with the choppy rhythms and dynamics of the song, so I wrote lyrics that followed this vibe of ‘unison, syncopation, and unoriginality.’”
45. LCD Soundsystem, ‘Call the Police’
It’s been six years since LCD Soundsystem played what was supposed to be their final concert. And if you’re like me at all, you’re pretty happy when artists go back on their word and come out of retirement, especially when they come back strong with new material that only adds to – rather than subtracting from – their legacy.
“Call the Police” is a feedback-laden, seven-minute rocker with a throbbing post-punk bassline and an urgent, emotional vocal from James Murphy, who sets the tone with a mantra of “We all, we all, we all, we all know this is nothing.”
The lyrics are riddled with tension, reflecting the current political climate without naming names or engaging in anything obvious while the music appears to be channeling the ghost of David Bowie. “The old guys are frightened and frightening to behold,” Murphy sings. “The kids come out fighting and still doing what they’re told.”
In the song’s most lacerating verse, he sings, “Well, there’s a full-blown rebellion but you’re easy to confuse / By triggered kids and fakes and some questionable views / Oh, call the cops, call the preachers / Before they let us and they love / When oh, we all start arguing the history of the Jews / You got nothing left to lose / Gives me the blues.”
46. Grimes featuring Janelle Monae, “Venus Fly”
This collaboration with Monae has been available since late 2015. But now there’s a suitably surrealistic video to refocus our attentions on this overlooked “Art Angels” highlight.
And it’s twice as long now, easing the listener into the pulsating heart of the track with a soulful, atmospheric intro and bringing it down to a slow-burning crawl as the end credits roll.
The song itself is classic Grimes, with a chorus hook repeatedly demanding to know, “Why you lookin’ at me?”
47. Fairy Bones, “No One Can Suffer Like I Can”
Fairy Bones have never come up with a track that sounded more like it should be a hit. I loved “8 Ball” and “Pink Plastic Cups,” their two previous singles, but those had alternative-radio written all over them (in a good way). This one feels more like that rare breed of rock song that could totally cross over to the pop charts (also in a good way).
It’s a brilliant arrangement, setting the tone with a cavernous guitar sound and pulling it back to just bass, drums and vocals when the verse kicks in before the unexpected payoff of the detour they take on the chorus hook, which seems to occupy a no man’s land where Damon Albarn and Rihanna know it’s kinda dumb that they have yet to work together.
48. David Bowie, “No Plan”
This emotional ballad is the title track to a posthumous EP released on what would have been the legendary singer’s 70th birthday, which means it also hit the streets two days before we marked the anniversary of his unexpected passing.
That’s a lot of weight to carry, but this single does an admirable job, an ethereal ballad with mournful sax whose opening verse finds him setting the scene with “Here / There’s no music here / I’m lost in streams of sound / Here, am I nowhere now? / No plan.”
As was the case with many of the tracks that hit hardest on “Blackstar,” Bowie’s final album, it’s impossible to hear this and not wonder if he meant it as an existential rumination on his own mortality. Whatever his intentions, though, it definitely feels like Bowie signing off to one final time, like Major Tom to Ground Control.
49. Captain Squeegee, “Our Children”
Imagine a New Orleans funk band playing jazz as aliens invade during Mardi Gras. The groove is undeniable, especially the horn arrangement. A baritone sax riff takes the lead, the other horns providing accents, offset by the sort of sonic eccentricities we’ve learned to expect from Captain Squeegee.
And then there’s Danny Torgersen’s lead vocal, setting the tone with “We can’t just suspend this state of pretend / Earth soakin’ wet with our cement / Her spirit is bent but not broken.”
The first video from a forthcoming effort called “Harmony Cure,” produced again by Bob Hoag, this new song is “the uneasy anthem,” Torgersen says, “of passing on a broken world to the next generation,” adding, “We wanted it to sound like a funky party song that slowly unravels into apocalyptic doomy-ness.”
50. Charli XCX, “Boys”
This may have been the perfect pop confection for 2017, from the opening pout of “I was busy thinking ’bout boys” to the way the keyboard answers every line of that contagious chorus with the same insipid two-note pattern.
How this record failed to even scratch the surface of the Hot 100 is the sort of mystery that has, for centuries, sent humankind looking for answers in religion. And what humankind has learned is that there are no easy answers.
The production is flawless, taking the concept of minimalism and stripping it down to its barest essentials. But the key ingredient throughout is Charli XCX’s vocal, especially the way she delivers the line, “I’m sorry that I missed your party / I wish I had a better excuse / like I had to trash the hotel lobby / But I was busy thinking ’bout boys.”
A year without Viva PHX: Why the coolest music festival in Phoenix isn’t happening
Winter concerts in Phoenix 2018
18 for ’18: Our critics’ picks for movies, music, theater, TV and pop culture